Not for the first time in his rugby career, Danny Cipriani has been misunderstood. There is no truth to rumours that he will quit the Melbourne Rebels at the end of this season to return to England.
That’s not to say he won’t be going home once the Rebels’ inaugural Super Rugby campaign is done.
His most fervent hope is to earn a recall to the England squad for the World Cup and, in a sense, that dream permeates his every performance for the Rebels. But World Cup or not, he will be pulling on the Melbourne jersey again in 2012.
“I signed a two-year deal when I initially signed and I’m happy with the situation I’m in right now,” Cipriani said. “I’m enjoying my time here, enjoying the season. We’re going really well and I’d like to see us keep improving and moving forward.”
The Rebels are indeed going well, better, with three wins already to their credit, than any expansion club since the Brumbies won seven in their first year of Super 12.
Cipriani played an eye-catching role in two of those wins, landing a penalty goal right on full-time to sink the Brumbies 25-24 and then audaciously cross-kicking to Richard Kingi for a shock try in the Rebels’ second one-point win over Western Force in Perth. And while it would be unfair to single him out for special mention in the extraordinary come-from-behind triumph over the Hurricanes, he certainly played his part.
The question is whether Cipriani has caught the eye of the only person who really matters as far as he is concerned, England coach Martin Johnson.
It is scarcely a secret that Cipriani didn’t hit it off with Johnson right from the start, but arguably the real damage was done in Brian Ashton’s dying days as England coach. On the eve of what should have been his Test debut against Scotland in the 2008 Six Nations, Cipriani was caught leaving a nightclub at 12.30am and dumped from the side.
He was recalled for the very next Test, the last of the Ashton era, and turned in a scintillating performance in the 33-10 defeat of Ireland, but Johnson clearly had reservations about him and it only took a too-early return from an ankle injury and a sharp drop in form for the new coach to wipe his hands of his talented but troublesome five-eighth.
Depressed, Cipriani almost gave the game away. But then came news of the new club starting up in faraway Melbourne. Everything about it spelt “fresh start’ and somehow Cipriani convinced the new Rebels coach Rod Macqueen to take a chance on him.
There have been moments of friction and a $5000 club fine was imposed after a silly prank gone wrong, but neither coach nor player has any regrets about how things have worked out for Cipriani in Melbourne.
“At the beginning it was a tough start to be away from home and your family and friends,” Cipriani said.
“But the Rebels really embraced me and took me in and I felt like one of them.
“I came out here to rediscover my love for the game because I was really close to not playing it for very much longer last year. And it’s done everything I wanted it to do. I’m loving rugby again and playing with a smile on my face.”
He might want to moderate his facial expressions because, heaven knows, Johnson is not big on smiling. He is not a renowned fence-mender either and there have been no messages of encouragement from him although, intriguingly, Johnson’s backs coach Brian Smith has been quietly corresponding with the Rebels coaches, keeping tabs on the player many still regard as England’s best five-eighth.
Cipriani isn’t proud, not these days anyhow. He’s making no claims on the number 10 jumper. He’ll take a wing spot if that’s the only way to pull on the England jumper again. He’ll sit on the bench.
Heck, he’ll be a dirty-dirty if need be, a squad member not in the match 22. He still has half a season of Super Rugby left to win Johnson over, starting Friday against the Highlanders at The Stockade.