'I'd known for a while that I had to do things differently'
England rugby star Danny Cipriani tells Gabrielle Fagan how he's a changed man, and how poetry set him on the road to success
England rugby star Danny Cipriani is knocking back a pint of milk and bandying about names like Aristotle and Rudyard Kipling.
If that's far from the stereotype of a typical rugby player, it's even further from a guy who was once more famous for his off- than on-pitch antics. He had a tempestuous relationship with model Kelly Brook and was frequently in the spotlight for appearances at red carpet events, fashion shoots, premieres and parties.
"Let's say I have a much better understanding of life these days. As you get older, you mature and see things in a different light," says the 27-year-old dryly, as he contemplates a career filled with highs - he was part of the England squad for the recent Six Nations tournament - and lows, when in his early twenties saw his undoubted talent overshadowed by his "bad boy" antics.
"I don't know if my "bad boy" image was unfair but looking back I think I gave people an excuse to focus on that side of my life," he says, carefully measuring his words.
"I'm not saying I didn't make mistakes - what young lad doesn't? - but mine were made a lot more public. It was all a learning curve."
And it seems he has definitely learnt.
These days his constant companion isn't a glamorous girl, but a notebook for making daily notes on his diet, training and anything which inspires him - including those philosophical Aristotle and Kipling quotes. And Cipriani is insistent his total focus is now on "becoming the best sportsman and player that I can possibly be."
While that interest in philosophy can be attributed to the influence of motivational mentor, Steve Black - who also guided rugby legend, Jonny Wilkinson - the dramatic change in image and focus is partly because Cipriani admits he feels "the clock is ticking" in a sport where most professionals retire in their mid-thirties.
"Looking back I think I probably took success for granted when I was younger. You don't really appreciate the moments as they come along. Playing for England this year I felt much more stable, grounded and relished every second," says the fly-half who captained England under-16s and was an all-round sportsman as a child, playing cricket to county level and being a member of the QPR football academy. He made his London Wasps debut aged only 17.
His devoted mother, Anne, a single parent and London cab driver, worked tirelessly to get him scholarships to public schools so he could pursue his considerable talents.
"My passion was always rugby and she did everything she could, working all hours, to help me achieve my dream. Making her proud is one of my main motivations," he says touchingly.
Ultimately a series of events in 2013 - an accident when he was hit by a bus after an evening drinking with friends, the end of his on-off romance with Brook and joining premiership Manchester-based club, Sale Sharks - culminated in a turning point.
"I escaped the accident with cuts and bruises but it was serious and could have had an entirely different outcome. Really I'd known for a while I had to do things differently, but it's hard to work out how unless you're helped. Steve was key in that," he says candidly.
Another crucial change was to his diet, following a blood test which discovered he was intolerant to milk and certain foods.
"Milk was a real shock because it's a fantastic post-training recovery drink," says Cipriani who's substituted it for a2 milk and credits it with helping to improve his performance.
"I just wish I'd gone for that test years ago," he adds.
After the "thrill" of playing for England again in this spring's Six Nations, his heart is now set on winning a place in England's World Cup squad this autumn.
"Do I feel like the come-back kid? Well, in a way but it's never really left my mind that I could succeed. It just took some refocusing. My mantra now is, 'I have nothing to prove' which takes the pressure off and allows me just to focus on doing my best."
Danny Cipriani is ambassador for the Welcome Back to Milk campaign for a2 Milk. Visit a2milk.co.uk/wow