2008 Six Nations
Danny can be the champion of the world
PA Sport's Frank Malley
March 16, 2008
When Danny Cipriani walked off the Twickenham pitch after a masterful fly-half performance on his first start for England he caught the eye of head coach Brian Ashton.
''Was that ok?'' queried Cipriani, who kicked seven kicks out of seven, scored 18 points and brought a decision-making authority to England in their 33-10 victory against Ireland which has been conspicuous by its absence of late.
''Yep,'' was Ashton's no-frills reply. In truth, however, it was much better than just ok.
So much better that Jonny Wilkinson, World Cup winner, world record points scorer and rugby legend, must wonder whether he will ever again be able to lay consistent claim to the number 10 shirt which looked such a perfect fit on Cipriani.
So much better that after a match before which all the speculation surrounded whether Ashton could save his job, all the talk suddenly was about a bright new era and how England could become ''the best team in the world.''
True, Wilkinson would never have used the F-word live on national television as Cipriani did as the adrenalin of triumph surged in his post-match BBC interview.
Nor would Wilkinson in his flush of youth have had the confidence to boss around experienced warriors such as captain Phil Vickery and Simon Shaw and then slap each forward on the back in congratulation as they left the field.
Cipriani is different all right and he has no intention of hiding one jot of his considerable talent. If that means he comes across as arrogant then so be it. The man who was dropped by Ashton last week for a late-night visit to a Mayfair night club 48 hours before the game against Scotland attempted to explained his role in a performance which might well have prolonged Ashton's tenure as head coach.
He said: ''I've been given the job of playing fly-half for England. I can't come in quietly. I know people write about me and say I'm confident and arrogant but I have to do a job and if I go about it half-heartedly it's not going to work. 'I had to make sure we were going the right way. I was trying to talk all the time.
''I've been very vocal with the forwards. It's crucial you tell them what you want because if you tell them they're going to give it to you. I can't reiterate how well our forwards did. I take my hat off to them.''
All that takes some nerve for a 20-year-old. Yet there were far more hats being doffed in the direction of the man who takes off his protective cap only to slide over his precision goal-kicks. Not least from Ashton who, for the first time this Six Nations, saw his side led with composure and direction, especially after going 10-0 down before some latecomers had taken their seats.
Cipriani's talent, however, is not just about a cool head and a superb kicking game. The Wasps man also brings sparkling unpredictability as well as blistering pace and fast hands to the playmaking role.
Ashton, when pressed to expand on his assessment of the youngster's performance, said: ''I would never describe him as arrogant. I have described him as a bit of a maverick and the really good part of being a maverick is that he has got the skills and the mental strength to back it up. 'So you don't mind him every now and then doing something where you think 'Jesus, what's he doing there?' because suddenly it comes off because of the skills he has.''
You might have thought Ashton, having already reprimanded Cipriani, might be a little wary of his most lumionous talent's ability to deal with the bright lights and the big-time which rapidly are heading his way. Not a bit of it. Ashton said: ''Given what he has done with Wasps and how he has been looked after by Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards and Lawrence (Dallaglio), who has had a good influence, I don't think there's any danger whatsoever of Danny Cipriani getting too big for his twinkling feet.''
In fact, the bigger problem for Ashton might be incorporating the various threequarter talents pressing their case. For instance, when Wilkinson came on after 52 minutes to replace Toby Flood at centre he received the biggest cheer of the game and looked entirely comfortable in the berth which he has filled before and which could present a lifeline for him in the future.
Ashton, however, also has the talent of Shane Geraghty knocking at his door as well as try-scorer Mathew Tait, who came on for blood victim Paul Sackey, while centre Jamie Noon deservedly won the man-of-the-match award. Such an embarrassment of riches is starkly at odds with the thoroughly wretched England who failed to turn up at Murrayfield the week before.
That inconsistency has been a feature of Ashton's reign. Yet Ashton deserves time to nurture the obvious talent at his disposal, talent whose next challenge comes in Auckland and Christchurch against the All Blacks in the summer.
That is the ultimate test for the new fly half, who had F-words hovering on the lips of fans as they left Twickenham. 'Fantastic' was one. 'Flawless' was another.