Danny Cipriani reveals England doubts but now can't wait for first Test start in a decade

Jonathan Hunn
Returning: Cipriani last started for England in 2008: Action Images via Reuters

Danny Cipriani’s selection for England’s third and final Test against South Africa at Newlands on Saturday is a triumph for perseverance as much as attacking genius.

Cipriani has been installed as ringmaster for the last assignment of the season, when England will seek to avoid a sixth successive Test defeat that would complete the nation’s worst losing run since 2006, when Andy Robinson was sacked.

Every coach since has capped Cipriani. Brian Ashton gave him his debut before Martin Johnson and then Stuart Lancaster experimented, only to lose patience with a player who has had training-ground spats with World Cup winners Josh Lewsey and Mike Catt.

His reputation as a preciously talented if troublesome playmaker, combined with a growing celebrity profile that attracted the wrong kind of attention, inspired the decision to spend a season in Australian provincial rugby in 2012.

Since then, lucrative offers from French clubs have been rejected in favour of playing for Sale and Wasps in the pursuit of winning back his England place, a prospect that briefly seemed possible under Lancaster during the build-up to the 2015 World Cup.

Initially, Eddie Jones was unconvinced, harbouring misgivings over his potential to cause disruption in a team environment, and still remained unmoved when he embarked on a successful tour to South Africa with the second-string Saxons two years ago.

It was a show of commitment to the cause. Chris Ashton, the Toulon wing who has been frozen out by Jones, turned down the chance to be part of the same squad and recently questioned what might have been had he shared Cipriani’s persistence.

Only when the Roehampton-born 30-year-old picked-apart defences with his vision and range of passing at the back end of the Premiership season did Jones’ outlook shift.

Back in the fold: Cipriani, left, trains ahead of his return to the England XV (REUTERS)

Now Cipriani will make his first Test start in a decade after ousting George Ford in the No10 jersey, satisfied at having never lost sight of his true goal.

“I want to be in this team for as long as I possibly can,” Cipriani said. “I’ve been in and out of it for a while. A lot of it is my own doing and sometimes it was down to different personalities, but I persevered and make sure I have done everything I can do to get back into the squad. I find a way. You do have doubts, but does it then push you harder to go and prove them wrong?

“There are those voices that do come into your head but it is about perseverance and resilience. It’s about whatever your bigger picture is. I’ve never lost sight of that, so that’s why I guess I’m getting the opportunity now. For me it’s always been about playing for England.

“I wouldn’t be here now if things hadn’t happened in the last X number of years. Maybe I’d have had more caps, who knows? But now I’ve got an opportunity to represent my country and get back to winning ways on Saturday and that’s what I am excited about.”

Cipriani’s return could hardly have come at a more delicate time for England or their head coach. The series has already been conceded, instigating a tumble down the global rankings to sixth and placing Jones’ future in doubt. The RFU have backed him regardless of Saturday’s outcome, but should the slump continue deep into a punishing autumn schedule that opens with fixtures against South Africa and New Zealand, they will surely be compelled to act.

Victory in Cape Town would send England into the four-month break between now and the November series with spirits raised; defeat would ratchet up the pressure.

South Africa have tinkered with their line-up, dropping the excellent Willie Le Roux to the bench, but England are missing the Vunipola brothers. Mako has returned home to attend the birth of his first child, while Billy has undergone surgery on a broken arm.

How much is left in the tank will be clear tomorrow and even Jones is wary of over-promising when asked if England are motivated by humility or ego.

“The only thing I know about this team is that it cares a lot, cares a lot about playing hard, playing hard for their country and about each other,” Jones said. “We go into each game committed to give our best performance, so whether that’s humility or ego, I’m not sure, but we’re committed to giving our best performance.”