Saturday, 3 May 2014

Danny Cipriani: "I"m gunning to be there with England at World Cup"

Combining the words “Danny Cipriani” and “England” in one sentence still divides opinion. It is the same when any sportsperson queues up for redemption. Should they be judged on what they were, what they might have achieved without injuries and off-field distractions, or what they yearn to do next? “There won’t be anyone more emotional than me if I play for England again,” says Twickenham’s prodigal son, his soulful brown eyes working overtime.

Through the window ahead of him, the Manchester sun is shining brightly. The sense of springtime renewal is palpable. There is even a permanent reminder of Cipriani’s new sense of purpose tattooed on his left bicep. “The best way to make your dreams come true”, reads the inky inscription, “is to wake up.” Those who regard the 26-year-old as a talented waster, a profligate playboy in thrall to vapid celebrity, should perhaps look afresh at the determined, in-form, motivated individual desperate to feature in England’s Rugby World Cup campaign next year.

“I’m gunning to be there, definitely. I know what I can bring.” The boy Danny has rarely sounded more certain about anything.

It is still a long way from Sale Sharks’ unflashy training headquarters in Carrington back into the hearts of the entire English public. The word is that England are set to fly south to New Zealand this summer without their one-time fly-half, perhaps inviting him to play instead for what will be effectively a third-choice red rose side against the Barbarians. All is not entirely lost, however. England’s head coach, Stuart Lancaster, was discussing Cipriani with Sale’s director of rugby, Steve Diamond, on Friday and will be at Salford to watch the big game against Leicester.

Diamond is adamant Lancaster should take his revitalised fly-half and Cipriani, the Premiership’s player of the month in March, has at least “earned the right” – a new favourite buzz-phrase – to be taken seriously again. “Even if I have a good game rather than a great one this weekend I still feel like I will have hopefully put my hand up enough,” he says softly. “Anyone who doesn’t get selected for the tour is going to be disappointed.”

Cipriani firmly believes he can get back to where he once belonged; even his defence – “I’m at 90-odd per cent for my tackling stats this season” – has improved. Working with Steve Black, Jonny Wilkinson‘s former mentor, has also sharpened his focus and introduced him to the benefits of sacrifice. Cipriani has never been a bad lad, just the type who occasionally needs saving from himself.

The death in 2012 of his good friend Tom Maynard, the Surrey cricketer, at the age of 23, also had a significant effect. Above all else it taught Cipriani how fleeting sporting prowess – and life – can be: “It’s still hard to talk about now. It makes you realise you can’t take things for granted. That’s why I’m trying to fight for the right.

“People, as mates do, say: ‘Danny, you should be in the England team, you’re better than that.’ You want to do everyone around you proud. As I’ve got older, uglier and wiser, that’s what I’ve understood.”

What would he say, then, to his 19-year-old self, or even the 25-year-old version hit by a double-decker bus during a team pub crawl in Leeds 12 months ago? “When things are going well do you want to listen to anyone? Ever since I was 16 I was told I was going to play for England, so it just became clear in my head I was going to do that. It was just how it was. I felt it was where I was meant to be.”

People forget it was the fracture dislocation of his right ankle playing for Wasps against Bath in May 2008 that altered everything, not his lifestyle choices. “I was going to New Zealand as first choice and it stopped everything in its tracks. It happens. Then there was a change of coach and I wasn’t mature enough to deal with that.”

The road back, via the Melbourne Rebels and now Sale, has been a well-documented one. “I wouldn’t look at them as wasted years – they were years I perhaps needed just to get away. No one talks about the rugby I played in Australia … I played some good stuff and came back with a different mindset.”

As recently as last year, even so, he was still unhappy at not being handed more on-field responsibility. The north-west weather further tested his resolve – “It has been absolutely minging, I’m not going to lie” – and life with Diamond has its stormier moments. “It is tough love with him but when you do well enough he does show you a good amount of love.”

Ultimately, though, the odd couple have prospered. Sale are a side transformed and Cipriani, finally, is again being talked about for rugby reasons. “Austin Healey said recently it takes a season to drop a reputation and that I have now done that. It’s difficult because a lot of it wasn’t down to me. It was who I was dating and things like that. When it’s not going right, people tend to talk about this and that. It shouldn’t detract but sometimes people think it may.

“There were times when I was thinking: ‘Why are they talking more about me? Why should it matter?’ You become more rebellious in some ways because you are frustrated by it.”

Only recently has he worked out the perfect response. “The best way I can tackle that perception is do what I’m doing on the field, week in, week out, and then word gets around. I can’t help it if there are people outside my house taking pictures, making me look a certain way.”

Now more settled in Manchester – “I’ve got a good group of mates … one of them is a doctor” – the next step is to convince England they can trust him in the trenches. Hours spent studying Floyd Mayweather documentaries with Black has persuaded him to regard tackling as champion boxers do their opponents. “Obviously I’m not having a fight with the guy but, mentally, it is you versus him. You have to make it that sort of challenge. It has never been a question of my willingness.

“I’d love to be in that England setup. I’ve missed that experience and that’s what I’m trying to fight for now. I’ve been pretty happy with my consistency, as have my club. I don’t think many teams over the years have done the extreme turnaround we have.”

The reawakening of his England dreams would clearly be the icing on the Eccles cake for himself and his family. “Just to see how happy my mum is now to read good things about me and watch me playing well … it’s nice little things like that.” If he does play in next year’s World Cup there is a quote from the legendary Mayweather – “Everything people said I couldn’t do I’ve done” – which will strike a particular chord.

Danny Cipriani: "I"m gunning to be there with England at World Cup"

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