Grab the chains and padlock, it’s time to bolt the gates and close down the Institute for Wayward and Exuberant Rugby Players.
The Institute, colloquially knows as “Sale Sharks”, has been praised in recent years for their work rehabilitating some of rugby’s more colourful characters and turning them into the responsible, dutiful and, frankly, somewhat homogenous group of professional athletes that are prized in the modern sporting arena.
Under the stewardship of director Steve Diamond, the Institute has worked with the likes of James O’Connor, Denny Solomona and Marland Yarde of late, reforging them into valuable members of the Sharks. There are few better destinations for a rugby player down on their luck, looking to rebuild their careers after, often, self-enforced destruction, than the north-west of England.
It had seemed to be the salvation of Danny Cipriani.
The infinitely gifted youngster at Wasps, who ended up being sparked out in training by a frustrated Josh Lewsey.
The playboy Casanova with high-profile relationships, whose name was bandied around in the tabloids, day after day.
The mercurial talent who headed abroad to the Melbourne Rebels, where late nights out and breaches of the club’s code of conduct led to his teammates “losing confidence” in him.
Then came the move to Sale.
It wasn’t without its hiccups, including a collision with a bus whilst on a pub crawl back in 2013, but it was a four-year stint which showed the world a different vision of Cipriani. Gone was the impetuousness of youth and a lifestyle that would end up on the front pages, rather than the back pages.
During his time at the club, he matured into the kind of player that a team could be built around and Sale did just that, hanging on to his coattails as he worked his magic in the then-Aviva Premiership, regularly lifting them higher up the table than their relatively modest budget should have allowed them to reach.
It was the platform for earning a move back to his boyhood club of Wasps, where not only could he more realistically challenge for silverware, but he could genuinely push forward his case for England selection, something which, despite all the white noise and frills that have been a part of Cipriani’s career, has clearly driven him more than any other motivator.
Back at Wasps and the upward trajectory to his career continued, with the fly-half suiting the up-tempo and all-court style of the Coventry-based club to perfection. The kicking duties predominately being handled by Jimmy Gopperth wasn’t ideal, but it was a scenario more than conducive enough to at least put his name back into England contention.
The reward finally came this summer, with a recall to the national team and three opportunities to impress against the Springboks. He took those chances well, including playing a pivotal role in the third Test victory at Newlands.
No move to France for Mr Cipriani, he was off to the west country to take on the challenge of leading Johan Ackermann’s Gloucester up the table and, in the process, hopefully put down continued markers for his selection for the Rugby World Cup next year.
Unfortunately, it seems the Institute is not the redeemer of troubled souls that we thought it was, merely a band-aid for a broken leg.
On Thursday morning, Cipriani was found guilty of assault and resisting arrest, following an incident in a Jersey nightclub in the early hours of Wednesday morning. He was fined £2000 and also ordered to pay £250 compensation to the police officer involved, whilst charges of assault on a police officer, larceny and being disorderly on licensed premises were dropped.
Every one of us has done things under the haze of alcohol that we regret and perhaps this was the last throes of the petulance of youth, but it could not have come at a worse time for Cipriani.
Having worked so hard for the last six years to put that chequered past behind him and fight his way back into the England team, to jeopardise it all, just weeks after achieving his goal, is frustrating beyond measure.
For years, his rugby has warranted the recall conversation and his supporters have screamed for it, until blue in the face. It had seemed like Eddie Jones simply wasn’t a fan, Cipriani was one more of those players whose faces just don’t seem to fit and that a departure for France was imminent, where he could enjoy the twilight years of his career in the sun, topping up his post-rugby pension and pushing for further silverware.
Maybe we have all read the Jones situation wrong and that, in fact, the Australian has always been a fan of Cipriani and that his non-selection was purely due to Jones’ fondness for the George Ford and Owen Farrell axis. Perhaps, Cipriani’s recall this summer was not a frustrated Jones giving into public pressure and the serene majesty of the fly-half’s play with ball in hand, but a true welcoming into the fold, having seen in recent years the perseverance and determination of the man, not just the rugby player.
Let us hope that is the case and that Cipriani hasn’t thrown away his shot at the Rugby World Cup on one drunken night, but if it isn’t and Jones’ newly-found admiration for Cipriani is as thin as his patience seemingly was for him before the summer, then it is the excuse Jones needed to revert to type and select his combination of Ford and Farrell.
We have seen that combination work and we have seen that combination fail. There is no denying that Cipriani brought a new energy to the group this summer and the early signs of chemistry with Farrell were promising.
Maybe it was a fearlessness of the environment, having been out of Test rugby for so long, or maybe it was just his natural ability, but he looked composed, clinical and like a player who could shake up the predictability that has crept into England’s game over the last 18 months.
Of course, the incident in Jersey now raises the question for Jones that if it has happened once, what is there to stop it happening again, perhaps in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup? Or worse, even at the tournament itself?
We are about to enter the final season before rugby’s showpiece event in Japan next year and these final 11 or 12 games are all about Jones fine-tuning his side and working out, unequivocally, what his strongest 23 is.
On the basis of talent alone, that 23 almost certainly includes Cipriani, but is it a risk the Australian can take? Build around Cipriani for the next 12 months and then another incident occurs, ruling him out of the tournament?
From afar, the journey we have all witnessed Cipriani take over the last few years is one of maturation, humility and of a player honing the finer points of his game. Many of us would be happy to write this incident off as an anomaly in the life of Cipriani 2.0, but our necks aren’t on the line if it goes wrong.
Jones has always said that he doesn’t see Cipriani as a bench fly-half, as someone who could spell Ford or Farrell, and that he would only be selected if he felt the playmaker could challenge for the starting spot. Does being a starter, rather than a member of the larger squad, require more faith and trust from the coach? And if so, has that been damaged by this incident?
These are questions only Jones can answer and answers we probably won’t have any insight into until he names his squad for the autumn internationals. Any questions posed to Jones on the subject before then are likely to be met with a bat so straight that it would put Alastair Cook to shame.
All that Cipriani can do now – apart from the phone call with Jones that we presume has already taken place – is set about tackling the new season with Gloucester with the same gusto that he attacked his previous campaigns with Sale and Wasps.
His energy, ability and drive won him a recall before and it can do again, should this incident have harmed his standing in Jones’ eyes.
Jones is, after all, a pragmatist, and if he believes that Cipriani is his best way of leading England to a Rugby World Cup triumph, he won’t be afraid to call on him again.
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