Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

No Cipriani, no joy

Whatever else happens at Twickenham this afternoon English rugby will be kidding only itself if it does not acknowledge one gut-wrenching defeat. It is the grievous deficiency implicit in the absence of Danny Cipriani.

A deficiency, this is, in husbanding what has for some time represented by a big margin the nation's most engaging rugby potential.

First, though, it is necessary to acknowledge the admirable yeoman qualities of the occupant of the number 10 jersey, Andy Goode, against Italy. But then you have to say that the non-appearance of Cipriani, the most promising English player of this and most other generations, at the dawn of a season crucial to the development of a crisis-ridden team is a lot more than a single failure to deliver - in reasonable time - a precocious talent to an acceptable level of performance at the highest level.

It is a missed opportunity that can only exaggerate the feeling of lost horizons and stunted growth of a team who less than six years ago ground down the best of world opposition - and a mere 16 months ago resurrected themselves to the point of an appearance in the World Cup final.

Cipriani's false dawn is surely central to the profound sense of not just under-performance but lost coherence. Whatever you thought of former coach Brian Ashton's handling of largely superannuated superstars, as opposed to his highly respected grasp of the game's technicalities, the manner of his marginalisation was both desperate and gutless.

England retreated into the bastion of Martin Johnson's aura which, sooner or later, may re-state its value but in the meantime continues to look like an extremely poor second to the brilliant organisation and drive Warren Gatland has brought to renascent Wales.

No doubt the now ageing Cipriani - 21 is, after all, relatively advanced for a wunderkind - and his advisers can be accused of jumbled priorities. Can you imagine, for example, the neophyte Jonny Wilkinson having his own press agent so far below the mountain top?

Johnson may well argue that sending Cipriani off with the second team to Dublin constituted, at least potentially, the most effective possible wake-up call. But, really, wake up call? It is surely getting a little late to put too much faith in such draconian measures.

Of course, Cipriani has time to disabuse some of us of the view that he has heaped upon himself the kind of killing distraction so religiously avoided by Wilkinson. His defenders say that he was simply rushed too quickly back after injury into the disastrous autumn series, rather than proving inadequate in face of the challenges placed before him, but the theory is weakened now by Johnson's decision that he could not entrust Cipriani with the pivotal role against the weakest of the six nations.

The player is apparently seething at his exclusion. He was certainly tetchy when dealing with criticism after the autumn performances which cast such serious doubts against the assumption that not only would he succeed Wilkinson quite naturally but also bring to the task subtleties and flair beyond the means of the ageging and physically battered champion.

No, Cipriani snapped, he didn't have a problem with celebrity. He was entirely focused on the challenge ahead.

He insists he will be back to take possession of his destiny. However worthily Goode performs today, Twickenham will surely ache that the former boy wonder is as good as his word. And ache not only for the loss of entertainment, but maybe any slight belief that English rugby has a clue about what it is doing.

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