Danny Cipriani’s road to international redemption has been a long time coming.
The cavalier flyhalf has spent ten years on the fringe or in exile from the national team, with his last start coming in 2008. Once again, Cipriani is poised to don the number 10 England jersey in a career that has come full circle.
Fittingly, it has been a return to his original club Wasps that has seen him reach arguably his career-best form in the Premiership. That has forced Eddie Jones to reconsider what the playmaker can bring to this England team. A dead rubber match against South Africa will give Cipriani a chance to prove he is a valuable piece in England’s World Cup quest, an opportunity to answer the intrigue that surrounds his potential.
That’s what this is – a World Cup audition. For Cipriani to even be here at this point is a remarkable achievement. The penultimate year before a World Cup is usually about trimming and consolidating a squad, not a time for last-minute experimentation. A six-match losing skid has opened the door for Cipriani’s international return. He stands at a pivotal crossroad once again, but this door will not be open long. If he can pilot a victory in influential fashion it could propel him towards a Rugby World Cup berth, if not, it could be his last hurrah.
He will face the same team he played when he last started a test match, South Africa, where England were soundly beaten in a record 42-6 defeat.
On that day the Springboks sent a lot of traffic down Cipriani’s channel, scoring the first try through Danie Rossouw with two straight phases directed at him. As a follow up they continued to send runners down his lane to test his mettle. In the 20th minute his confidence was shaken when an exit kick was charged down and South Africa scored under the posts.
Just a 21-year-old flyhalf finding his feet at international level, he didn’t have the control required that day. His kicks continued to be charged or misguided, compromising England’s field position. His ball-handling was similar to what you see today – a skilled passer with brilliant timing. There were moments of class that showed his potential, but few would predict that would be his last chance to start in nearly a full decade.
England fought valiantly early in the second half, looking to get a crucial try down 20-6 but failed and quickly went downhill. Cipriani had a chance to exploit an overlap and threw the ball into touch, and from there the young flyhalf unravelled. His next pass was a loose one that hit the deck and allowed South Africa to flood the ruck and earn a penalty. Another long floater was dropped cold by winger Paul Sackey. He was burned on the outside moments later, allowing a Springbok to run around him.
It was a tough lesson in test match rugby. It was also a poor performance by the team, not just Cipriani.
The game has evolved three or four times since that day at Twickenham. It is almost unrecognisable to how it is played now. The game has changed but Cipriani has survived and re-modeled with it. The 30-year-old version is a much-improved player, with maturity and experience on his side. He still possesses an attacking mentality but now with the accuracy that comes with age.
He has long-awaited this moment for redemption. This could be Cipriani’s last shot. Hopefully it’s the only one he needs.
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