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‘Jonny Wilkinson taught me so much but I’d love to take that No 10 shirt’


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Danny Cipriani was in the headlines yesterday morning and the nub of the story was Cipriani versus Jonny Wilkinson, the battle royal for the England No 10 shirt.




London Wasps, his club, play Llanelli Scarlets tomorrow in a thundering Heineken Cup tie, yet whether Cipriani, 20, likes it or not, it is that England shirt that will be the theme of his life for the next few years as it is played out on the back pages. Given how open he is about his ambition, you suspect that he does not mind.


When he walked into work at the Wasps training ground in West London yesterday, Lawrence Dallaglio, Cipriani’s teammate, had a newspaper in front of him and raised an eyebrow. “Jonny v Hood” was the headline. “But why are you wearing a hoodie?” was Dallaglio’s teasing remark. Cipriani smiled and returned a quickfire response; he has had to learn fast to mix it in such company.


But Dallaglio, a master of the media, also told Cipriani that he had balanced the Wilkinson issue well. He had buttered up the great man, said that he was “the greatest 10 England had ever seen” and simultaneously made clear his intention to have the shirt off his back as soon as possible.


This is tricky, but Cipriani handles it all with a charming self-confidence. If you want to know how good Wilkinson is, this boy will tell you; if you want to know what he has done for the game, he will tell you that he has regenerated it single-handedly. He will also rewind five years and tell you how, as a schoolboy widely acknowledged to possess extraordinary talent, he was starry-eyed with the opportunity to share a kicking session with Wilkinson and his fastidious coach, Dave Alred.


“I was invited down to Twickenham,” he said. “My enduring impression is that when Jonny was kicking to me, I didn’t have to move – every kick went pretty much straight into my hands. It was phenomenal. At that age, that was something that I tried to mimic. But, obviously, what I also saw was all the hours’ practice he was putting in and so I started trying to do that, too, when I was at school or down at Wasps. I think that’s the key in rugby – to have a high work ethic.”


And it seems to have worked. “It will be cool to meet up with him again and talk, as fly halves do,” Cipriani said. Indeed, they will meet in 15 days’ time, although now Cipriani is spoken of as the coming force in English rugby, as the inform No 10, so the terms of reference have changed dramatically.


Cipriani woke on Wednesday morning this week knowing that the England squad for the opening RBS Six Nations Championship match was to be announced that day. Shortly after midday, at training, Ian McGeechan, the Wasps director of rugby, called him over to inform him that he had made it. Dallaglio congratulated him; Phil Vickery, reinstalled as England captain, shook his hand and told him that it was time to “take it to another level”.


So when they meet as the England squad, Cipriani hopes to continue to learn from Wilkinson, but the dynamic has changed because he is now trying to displace him, too. “I’m still going to learn a lot from Jonny,” Cipriani said. “Obviously, if I had the chance to play at 10, I’d thrive on it, I’d love it.”


You wonder if all the big talk – which comes mainly from elsewhere, but, when he is asked, he happily corroborates – is not likely to pile up the pressure. “You try not to take too much on board” is his answer. He adds that he does not mind the headlines because his mother, a London cabbie, keeps a scrapbook.


But a more considered answer is: “If anything, I quite enjoy playing under pressure; if people say things like that, if I say something like that, then you have got to live up to it.”


And he does indeed appear as self-assured – note, this is self-assurance, not arrogance – as he sounds. He is, if you like, a product of a professional system.


Like Wilkinson, he took on Alred as his kicking coach, he is also another who swears by the fitness training work of Margot Wells and he does extra postpractice tackling work with resident monsters such as Joe Worsley and James Haskell. Perhaps most significant, for nearly three years he has had Shaun Edwards as his mentor.


It was Edwards who told him to study some of the great finishes of Gerald Davies. The Wasps head coach also emphasises the importance of being the eternal link man. “Shaun says that if a No 10 touches the ball three times in a phase of play, he’ll end up scoring,” he said.


But most important, Edwards helped to prepare him for the step-up to the big role. “I’m someone with no caps and relative inexperience and I’ve got World Cup winners, British Lions, greats like Fraser Waters who have played at the club for ten years around me – yet as a No 10, I do have to take control,” Cipriani said.


Another influence is Alex King, the former Wasps fly half who has moved to Clermont Auvergne. Cipriani played at full back last season and had a perfect view of how King ran the show at No 10. “Alex was probably one of the best people at game-management around,” he said. “He’d put Wasps in the right position and he’d call the shots because people would listen to him. Obviously it’ll be slightly different for me because of my age.”


Indeed; King is 12 years his senior. “But as the pivotal figure, I have to show authority, that is the key,” Cipriani said.


And authority is what Edwards has gently encouraged. “Big-match mentality is what he has drilled into me,” Cipriani said. And that, as if we did not already know it, sounds like a successful formula. For Wasps and for England.


The great pretenders


Danny Cipriani is one of several young fly halves with covetous eyes on Jonny Wilkinson’s England No 10 shirt. Here are some others:


Shane Geraghty

Club London Irish

Age 21

Height 5ft 11in

Weight 13st 8lb

England caps 2 (as substitute; debut v France at Twickenham, March 11, 2007, kicked penalty and conversion in 26-18 win) Premiership points this season 0

Strengths Speed and vision.

Weaknesses Not first-choice kicker for London Irish. He is under Mike Catt’s wing and needs more time to prove whether he can run a game from the start.


Toby Flood

Club Newcastle Falcons

Age 22

Height 6ft 2in

Weight 14st 6lb

England caps 12 (debut as replacement v Argentina, Twickenham)

Premiership points this season 18

Strengths Looks like a gangling schoolboy, but surprises to cut powerful and fast lines. Most mature kicking game of the pretenders.

Weaknesses Not first-choice kicker for Newcastle with Wilkinson around. Probably slowest of the pretenders.


Ryan Lamb

Club Gloucester

Age 21

Height 5ft 9in

Weight 13st 5lb

England caps 0

Premiership points this season 79

Strengths Speed and jinking sidestep put him on par with Cipriani as a line-breaker.

Weaknesses Good goalkicker, but kicking from hand can be poor


— Words by Matthew Pryor



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