Was Danny Cipriani’s cold shoulder a case of perfect man management from Eddie Jones?
How like Eddie Jones it is to drop a Joe Marler-sized bombshell in his latest World Cup squad alongside the once again in favour Danny Cipriani and a very bolter-like pairing of Lewis Ludlam and Ruaridh McConnochie. While the latter duo are exactly the type of fresh faces international bosses love to use to light a fire under their regular players, could Cipriani's continued exclusion and now return be a perfect case of both genius man management and yet another long-planned Eddie Jones mind game?
Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Nathan Hughes are the biggest casualties to fall by the wayside of Jones’s World Cup training squad, and the absence of their combined 244 caps worth of experience could well show in Japan. But, despite these big name absences, the preliminary Rugby World Cup squad revolves around inclusions, and not exclusions, for the first time in this rugby tragic’s memory.
Marler provides much-needed security for England with potentially the world's best loosehead Mako Vunipola recovering from a hamstring that tore off the bone during the Champions Cup final. One slot along at hooker, soon-to-be Saracens man Jack Singleton is perhaps the closest thing England has in a like-for-like replacement for injured captain Dylan Hartley; as far as style goes. The whirling dervish openside flanker that is Northampton's Lewis Ludlam is perhaps the most unexpected face, while the role of second-choice number eight seems somewhat lacking behind the injury-prone man mountain that is Billy Vunipola. Equally, Cipriani's Gloucester halfback partner and New Zealand-born scrum-half Willi Heinz could be about to make his international debut during the warm-up games of a World Cup. While there is plenty to discuss and disagree with in Eddie's latest squad, on a whole, it does at least strike a healthier balance than those of regimes gone by.
Given his tremendous form for Gloucester over the course of the season and recent camp inclusion, Cipriani’s presence is scarcely a surprise. But, the context of his time in the wilderness under Jones and almost periodic summer returns over the last twelve months does present an interesting dynamic. Are we seeing a piece of genius man management in the latest episode in a series of Jones’s mind games?
It has long been thought, rumoured and/or suggested that Cipriani’s disruptive attitude has been the reason behind the former Wasps, Melbourne Rebels and Sale Sharks’ man’s lack of caps – collecting just sixteen over the last eleven years, having made his Test debut from the bench against Wales during the 2008 Six Nations. With this issue in hand, an issue that Cipriani himself has refuted on a number of occasions, has Eddie Jones carefully planned Cipriani’s exclusion and eventual return in an effort to get the best out of the man who is unquestionably the most naturally talented fly-half in memory? It sounds unlikely at first, but the Australian boss has form where long-planned man management goes.
With Cipriani reneging on a lucrative deal in Japan last summer to remain in England to further his Test career, Jones may well have thought in greater depth than many give him credit for when it comes to Cipriani. However true or false the talk of Cipriani’s disruptive attitude may be, Cipriani has spent a good deal of time moving from club to club, excluded from the international scene more often than not. It would, therefore, add some gravitas to the suggestion that Cipriani is a star player in need of well-placed man management, something Jones himself seems to enjoy, often heard discussing in one on one interviews his application of different management strategies for specific players and groups. Whether or not he’s timed it to perfection or thrown the cat amongst the pigeons on this occasion is the question of the day.
Cipriani, so often miraculous this season, has had to fight harder than any other for squad inclusion, turning down lucrative offers from abroad, investing substantial time and money in personal trainers, mind coaches and various sporting and homoeopathic specialists with the goal of self-improvement. With everything seemingly coming together, Cipriani is likely more motivated than ever before to impress the England coaches and toe whatever line Jones and co throw down. And at 31, there’s a feeling that it’s all or nothing for Cipriani this time around.
Cipriani will be 35 when the next World Cup comes around, while captain Owen Farrell, Leicester’s George Ford and the talented Marcus Smith are all going from strength to strength – Farrell, in particular, has seen immense improvement since spending time with Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton during the 2013 and 2017 British and Irish Lions tours.
The suggestion that Jones has opted to intentionally exclude Cipriani with the purpose of bringing him back in the eleventh hour, along with a strict set of guidelines, does hold a certain amount of water. After all, the inclusions of Ludlam and McConnochie and dropping of the Quins trio of Brown, Care and Robshaw demonstrates that the Australian has a proclivity for bold decisions.
In an open and honest interview for the Times' LifeTimes podcast series last month, Jones admitted to pushing his England players further than he ought to during a Six Nations campaign with the intention of hardening his players' physiological and mental resolves with the World Cup in Japan in mind. As the narrative followed, we can assume this period came during England’s redoubtable 2018 Six Nations campaign, finishing in a 50-year-low fifth-place finish. During this period, pundits and fans alike were regularly remarking or despairing over how slow and heavy footed the England squad appeared compared to their Celtic and Gallic counterparts. Whether you agree with him or not, we've seen Eddie Jones is willing to take a fall for a time if the ends, is his opinion, justify the means.
Jones is often the subject of heavy criticism, often deservedly so and regularly unfairly, but his handling of Danny Cipriani could well turn out to be a piece of man management genius. Everything is on the line for Cipriani this summer and if his efforts with Gloucester this season are anything to go by, the England coaches, and potential fans, if handed game time, are going to see the best of him. Equally, the injection of such a strong personality and demanding fly-half could just have thrown the cat amongst the pigeons in a squad where key positions such as scrum-half, loosehead prop and the midfield pairing raise certain questions.