“Rugby is a game where the best players are often those that make others look great.” That was all he said. I hoped he was talking about me but he wasn’t. My games teacher at school had a fine way of making you think he could be eluding to you.
I wasn’t a good rugby player, not half as good as you need to be. But that moment of insight into the game has had a lasting effect on me. “Rugby is a game where the best players are often those that make other look great.”
It is true, of course. One of the truly fascinating aspects of the game of rugby is the way it all fits together. When played well, rugby is about all the seams and joins that bind a team as one. So, what my esteemed rugby coach was trying to say is, the best rugby players are the glue, the gum and the paste; they bring it together, they are the bit inbetween. Martyn Williams when talking about rugby said “If I touch the ball four times in a move, we score. If I touch it five times, I score.” And he was a great player.
I am not entirely comfortable talking about this player in the same sentence as Williams. And indeed the word great does not yet apply. But few, especially anyone who has witnessed his work of late, can deny that he is, at the moment, very good.
But let’s just have a think about Danny Cipriani for a moment shall we? For we are witnessing, as far as I see it, a man who has come a long way. In watching his performances in the Premiership this season, you have to feel that we are benefitting from a whole heap of time spent reflecting. For the road on which he has travelled has not been smooth.
Cipriani is the product of a rugby odyssey which must include words like ‘inappropriate behaviour’, ‘nightclubbing’ and ‘fractured dislocation’. He’s sworn on national television, dated women boys dream about and been beaten up by his own teammates. He’s even been run over by a bus. Just take a moment to think about that. I mean, how many people do you know who have been run over by a bus?
Mentally, Cipriani must have been to places I can’t even imagine. Because here is a man who can play sport; football, cricket and squash all make a county level résumé. And yet the one he plumped for, chewed him up and spat him out. It took him all the way to the top (Sonja McLaughlan basically told him in front of millions that he’d played better than Jonny Wilkinson) and then it pushed him out in front of that bus. This English rose was exiled to Australia and was asked what it felt like to be joining the Rebels? Joining, he must have mused, I thought I already was one?
He has subsequently found a home up at Sale and slowly built himself back up. He’s taken stock of a few things, matured, call it what you want. He’s not the man he used to be. In his international debut post match chat with Sonja, just before dropping the f-bomb, he said, “Age is just a number…”
No it’s not, is it Danny? Age is something you don’t think important when you are young. Age is the time spent realising you aren’t as good as you think you are. Age is something you get having experienced life’s really tough moments. Danny Cipriani has aged.
So what we have now is all of that raw, precocious talent, filtered through a prism made from a good few years on the outside. He was the chosen one and then the unwanted child. That sort of rejection would harden any soul. Watch him pre and post match now, he grins and shrugs as if all of what has gone before, has given him perspective. On BT Sport’s rather wonderful Rugby Tonight, he looks like a man who knows what the media is up to. When they goad him into performing for one of their daft ‘Tiswas’ moments, he does so with a rueful smile that says ‘I’ve been courted by you guys before, I know where this can lead’. He is refraining; once bitten, twice shy.
On the pitch with Sale he is playing wonderful rugby. He is picking out passes with delightful ease and his back line are finding more holes than Rory McIlroy. Defensively his tackle percentage is touching 90% and no-one other than Magnus Lund has made more line tackles in Sale colours. Kicking from hand has been very good, even if kicking at goal percentages could do with a nudge northwards. And you only have to look at Saturday’s emphatic (and I mean emphatic) win against the best side in the league to see him at his best. Cipriani is the reason why the Sharks are so good this season. He is their glue, their gum, their paste. The recent heavy loss against Wasps genuinely happened when he wasn’t on the field. So all of this leads me down one particular path and ultimately leaves me with one question. And I mean no disrespect to others in the same position but, why is the best English fly half in the English Premiership not playing for England?
News this week is seeping through that should Cipriani continue to be ignored by Lancaster and England, he will take up a no doubt inflated offer from France. Brinkmanship it may be, but the lure of a team like Toulon could be too difficult to ignore. The Premiership would lose its most exciting product.
We would all be worse off. After all, he’s been teaching us something. If he goes, there will be many disappointed rugby fans. For, as my old rugby coach would have said, “He would make that England team look great.”
Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.