Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Throwing dud a lifeline sinks England credibility

Choosing Danny Cipriani at first-five is a massive backward step for the visitors, writes Gregor Paul

Danny Cipriani gained notoriety forhis off-field exploits. Photo / Getty Images
Danny Cipriani gained notoriety forhis off-field exploits. Photo / Getty Images

There we were starting to believe in England when they go and do something silly. They have selected Danny Cipriani and, with that, all credibility has disappeared.

Cipriani is a catastrophic dud. The All Blacks know that. They saw the 26-year-old first five-eighths play two seasons for the Melbourne Rebels in 2010 and 2011. He was, frankly, awful.

It's not that Cipriani is without talent or redeeming features. He is quick, steps well and can kick. But he looked a bit like the Swedish Chef when trying to bring the component parts of his game together and, defensively, the Rebels would have got more from a wet blanket.

Then, of course, there were his off-field antics - the big nights out and celebrity girls. It always felt awkward, an incompatible mix. He was Champagne off the field, Double Brown on it.

England coach Stuart Lancaster has convinced himself that Cipriani is no longer that man.

Not only has he calmed down since his return to England but his game, too, has developed the bits it was missing.

"Danny has been hungry to learn and very clear in his desire to be here for the right reasons," Lancaster said shortly before the squad departed for New Zealand.

"As a coach, you are watching for the little clues and tell-tale signs that confirm or deny that. He has been excellent. He has got up to speed with all the plays, has built relationships, been diligent and fitted in well.

"Danny is actually quite quiet off the field but knows he has to find a voice and boss the game. He is improving in that regard. He has put a marker down and we will make a decision based on what happens in training over the next week."

Bottom line for England, if they pick Cipriani to start at first-five in the opening test-as they have suggested they might - they will lose much of the respect they have earned in the last two years.

Some of the older members of the All Black squad have encountered England teams that have been far from impressive.

Between 2004 and 2010, the All Blacks won nine straight, with some major thumpings in that mix. For much of that period, England weren't a genuine threat. They could occasionally, as they did in 2005 and 2010, put together a one-off competitive performance at home.

As a consequence, many of the current All Blacks squad have never held much trepidation about playing England. Throughout the second half of the first decade of the millennium, the All Blacks knew they would be facing a team that was physical, tough and capable, but not much more than that. There was this sense that England were fallible - they always appeared to be in the process of rebuilding or developing, never certain of where they were even going.

The arrival of Lancaster after the last World Cup changed that. A pragmatic Northerner, he's had a clarity of vision from day one.

Boring, boring England is not their thing any more. They remain a supremely physical side, but their game plan accommodates width and tempo and the All Blacks are conscious England are the only team to have beaten them in their last 35 tests. And it wasn't a random result, either.

England were impressively good last year despite not winning and there is no doubt that on the lush turf of Twickenham - a fortress stadium if ever there was one - they represent one of the toughest challenges in the world game.

There was, in the build-up to last year's test against England, an obviously increased intensity of focus from the All Blacks.

Thursday's training carried an edge and, to a man, they had that slightly withdrawn look, their thoughts constantly drifting to the battleground.

Whatever impression senior players had drawn of England earlier in their careers, they have had to re-evaluate since 2011, which is why the selection of Cipriani is damaging for England.

The All Blacks will now wonder whether England really have turned the corner. Cipriani may well have grown up and kicked the playboy lifestyle. He might have improved his game but that won't stop Ma'a Nonu from believing he can run right over the top of him. That won't stop the All Blacks from thinking England are vulnerable in a critical channel.

And it probably won't stop them from wondering about other new players in the England squad.

If Lancaster can be convinced by a flake such as Cipriani, has he made similarly poor judgement elsewhere?

It's not much different to how things are with the Wallabies and Quade Cooper. The All Blacks love playing against Cooper - they don't fear him. They see him as a liability and a point of weakness to be exposed. The World Cup semifinal was a classic example of how any side can be rendered ineffective if their first-five is destroyed to the point he has a total meltdown.

Cipriani is a regressive step for England and the fact he's even made it out here has handed an early advantage to the All Blacks.

- Herald on Sunday

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