In 2008, one would have thought that the future of English rugby was secured through Danny Cipriani alone: a talent of the like not seen since the man he was annointed to replace, Sir Johnny himself. Fast forward almost eight years, and the prevailing narrative of the mercurial flyhalf is of wasted talent, underachievement and frustration. Indeed, it could be seen that the trajectory of Cipriani’s career is emblematic of the national team as a whole: flashes of brilliance, before disappearing under a weight of incompetency, bad luck and hubris. Moreover, to look at Cipriani’s persistent failure to get a look-in for the England side (even new coach Eddie Jones omitted him from his squad for the Six Nations), one begs the question: is the issue the player, or the team structure that exists around him?
This analysis exists with a caveat however, in that must be acknowledged that Cipriani has often unequivocally been the agent of his own destruction. In an isolated sense, the incidents would be funny if not for the talent of the man committing them: the collision with a bus on a night out in Leeds, the fight with Josh Lewsey, the spontaneous combustion of his relationship with Kelly Brook, the case of the disappearing bottle of vodka in the Melbourne bar. But these incidents, often amalgamated into a damning indictment of Cipriani’s character, come in the professional epoch where debauchery is the easiest route to squad ommission – what may have constituted harmless revelry in the amateur era is now indicative a player not focused on the game enough. Admittedly, at least at the moment this unfortunate perception of Cipriani is perhaps at odds with his behaviour, but regardless, when looking at the plurality of explainations offered for Cipriani’s unfulfilled potential, alcohol surely lies at the heart of the issue.
With this being said, much of Cipriani’s failure can arguably be traced to sheer bad luck. The horrific injury he suffered during the Premiership semi-final in 2008 (sadly, probably the zenith of his career) stalled his progress – and after less than a month back, another injury effectively meant two lost years at a time where logically, he should have been cementing his place in the national side. But for those advocates of Cipriani cause, this failure lies wrapped up in a much bigger failure, that of the national team – not just results wise, but a systemic failure in the way that the RFU’s top brass perceives the game.
The Lancaster period was characterised by its conservatism, the preference of persisting with the tried and tested rather than any attempt to change tack and take a more radical approach – this stance is perhaps epitomised by the continued inclusion of Brad Barritt in Lancaster sides, despite his mobility being akin to that of a geriatic, and offering precious little going forward. This era was that of a team that would rather avoid losing than actively try to win, and when this timidity was matched against the sheer ruthlessness of Australia and New Zealand, the result surely couldn’t have been a surprise. Perhaps this conservatism is reflective of the national sporting psyche, but it is a damaging trait nonetheless: youth players are either thrown in the deep end in despair, or overlooked entirely in favour of veteran stalwarts, a paradox that results in the depressing trend of unfulfilled potential across British sport. But the fact that even Eddie Jones, not a risk averse coach himself, saw fit to leave Cipriani out of his squad is maybe hinting at a broader issue with the player. Perhaps despite his undeniable talent, displayed week-in-week-out, Cipriani is simply too much of a temperamental figure to exist on a national level. This seems unlikely however: it is English rugby, rather than one player, that is the real issue.