I was asked by Channel 5 earlier this week to talk about Danny Cipriani. I’m reliably informed that the piece from my holiday in the Umbrian mountains via FaceTime probably didn’t make the cut. Maybe they were after more admonishment. Some cutting indictment as to how this was the final nail in the coffin and how he had once again failed as a sportsman. It was not forthcoming. I did proffer that he go to bed earlier but with the sort of look on my face to suggest that this latest brush with the law in the early hours is the price we have to pay for the player he is. I was the wrong ‘expert’ to call upon. Because I love Danny Cipriani.
I love the way he plays the game. The way he takes the ball to the line, giving himself two or three options on each occasion. He plays in the moment, plays what is in front of him, relying on his skill and judgement to make the call at the very last second. I love the way he makes defenders choose. The way he creates space for others, often sacrificing his own personal safety so that someone else can benefit. I love the way he carries the ball in two hands, and the way he uses his eyes to misdirect; his calmness amidst the chaos of a rugby midfield is so alluring.
I love the way he has kept plugging away. That, despite the clamour for his recall to international rugby, he knew that his work on the pitch was most important. He bided his time, never took no for an answer and slowly and surely played his way back into the England fold.
I loved the way he completely ignored me and spoke only to my son as we were waiting in the tunnel at the Ricoh Arena last season. There were three or four adults stood next to me, and alongside us was my twelve year old. Cipriani emerged from the changing room for his pre match routine and all of us held our breath. But Danny only had eyes for the lad. “You alright?” he said, as though they were cast iron friends. Frozen to the spot, my boy could only manage a confused nod and whimper as he held up his autograph book. Danny signed it, smiled and ran down the tunnel towards the pitch. ‘I love him’ the youngster’s expression seemed to say as he stared after him. So do I son, so do I.
But as I sit here musing over Cipriani’s latest foray on to the front pages of national newspapers, I realise what it is I love most about the mercurial fly half. I love Danny Cipriani’s vulnerability.
There is vulnerability in the way he plays rugby. It can and does go wrong. The high risk and reward element can get unpicked. But this is the gig. To fully engage a defender, you must allow them to think things are possible. In a way, a player like Cipriani needs the opposition to sometimes win and rub his face in the dirt on the way back up. It is the only way he can reach the ultimate goal.
But in current professional climes, this style of play is being ousted by cleaner, less risky, operators: those who have cleverly calculated all the possible outcomes before committing to the path least likely to fail. Players are picked for their consistency, their percentages, their low error count, not because they have the possibility of changing a game with a moment of sublime skill. I love Cipriani but can understand why someone like Farrell would be preferred in his stead for England. It makes a lot of sense, the way England are set up. But why Danny wouldn’t be on the bench is beyond me: something different, a change of beat, a man who will try things others won’t. When plan A isn’t working, you don’t need a man who plays the same way. Cipriani is the ideal tonic.
But it is his vulnerability off the pitch that is seemingly Cipriani’s undoing. He has been drawn in by celebrity circles; by the flame of fun filled evenings and letting go, and, perhaps vainly, believing this is what he is due. He has come from an upbringing which has been tricky, where his single parent mother worked tirelessly to give and give, and so now, perhaps, he feels that some sort of pleasure has to be derived from all that graft. Why not enjoy those spoils? He, himself, has toiled under unbearable scrutiny to prove himself to everyone, time and again. It is only human to think that you should be able to go out for a few beers, and maybe even argue with an officious bouncer.
But professional sport doesn’t care for being human. Much like the professional rugby field, it looks to reward those who never let up, who do not err. The modern world and in particular the media, feel as though there is a price to pay for professional adulation: that should you transgress, the same public who laud you for your talent, should also revel in your misdeeds. As though, being lucky enough to make your living at something as enjoyable as sport means the debt paid, when you step out of line, must be public humiliation.
I regret, like he does, that Jersey happened. And do not condone any of Danny’s actions. But I reckon his anger, initially at the doorman and then at the police officer doing her duty, was really aimed at himself. He knew as soon as the bouncer went to turn on his body camera, how this would all play out. How greedily the press would lap it up; how the howls of derision would echo all the way up to Twickenham’s towers. And he hated the fact that, once again, he’d let it happen. I fear he is now more than likely to be made example of by a governing body so desperate to please a seemingly seething media campaign. But do I love Danny Cipriani any less? No.
We need our sportsman to err. We need stories of failure and redemption. We need certain players to risk it all on one turn of pitch and toss. To bring the unexpected, to give it a go and yes, to be felled once in a while. Because their vulnerability is everything. It makes their brilliance even more remarkable. And, at the same time, even more human. And we can all relate to that.