The official announcement of England's squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup came and went last Thursday afternoon and to the shock of nobody not living under a technological rock, Sale's own Danny Cipriani did not make the cut.
I could sit and write a detailed argument as to why Cipriani should have in fact been included - and I am inclined to believe the vast majority of the rugby-following world would agree with me - but what use is there in that when the decision has already been made by Stuart Lancaster? No, instead it will suffice to say that for me personally, Cipriani should have been included in England's World Cup plans without a shadow of a doubt. He is the third-best fly-half in the country behind George Ford and Owen Farrell both of whom I feel are superior all-round players making Lancaster's inclusion of them a logical choice, but Cipriani's unique game-changing ability is a trait unmatched by any of his English counterparts (and some would argue by anybody in world rugby) and when will there be a better to unleash Cipriani's maverick creativity than down by a score with fifteen minutes left in a World Cup semi-final?
Including Cipriani in his World Cup squad would have given Stuart Lancaster and co. an ace up their sleeve nobody else in the World could home to match; the type of dynamic, forward-thinking impact sub you could argue a team truly capable of winning a World Cup in all conditions and situations requires to keep around for a moment of individual brilliance.
However Cipriani's omission, when viewed through the right lens, is understandable. Cipriani's high risk/reward approach is a stark contrast to Stuart Lancaster's favoured pragmatic approach to winning rugby games and all indications suggests Lancaster is comfortable with having Bath stawlart George Ford as his primary playmaker, which depending on how you view Ford's ability to create and work as a central pivot in an English attack can be seen as a reasonable expectation to hold. Is Ford as capable of that individual moment of brilliance as Cipriani? No, but Ford is a damn good game-changer in his own right and his ability to win England games on a whim at the World Cup should not be forgotten amidst the pitchfork-gathering vis-a-vis Cipriani.
The issues begin to emerge if George Ford struggles at the World Cup and Owen Farrell is the creative force expected to turn a game on its head for England off the bench (especially worrying since Kyle Eastmond also didn't make the cut) but for the most part, a 1-2 punch of Ford and Farrell is perfectly capable of winning a World Cup for England. Yes Cipriani would have rounded out the group to form arguably the most skilled trio of fly-halves in any country's World Cup squad but there's enough ability between the Bath and Saracens fly-halves to make England not regret omitting Cipriani. I would even argue that Cipriani wasn't the biggest omission from the final culling of the England squad! (How Dave Attwood didn't make the final 31 is beyond belief).
But there is a silver lining for fans of Cipriani and England. There is absolutely no doubt that should injury befall either of England's two fly-halves (or even possibly one of Mike Brown or Alex Goode at fullback) Cipriani will be first in line for a callup. And injuries do happen. It would also be worthwhile to not forget the heroic tale of Stephen Donald, the 2011 World Cup winning fly-half for New Zealnd who made his first appearance of the tournament as a replacement for Aaron Cruden in the first half of the World Cup final. Anything can happen in sport, don't rule out Cipriani from making an impact at the World Cup yet.
However SharkTankRugby is a website whose main focus is domestic, not international rugby. So what does Cipriani's omission mean for his club, Sale Sharks?
The main takeaway from this apparent end to the Cipriani-World Cup saga is that, barring a late callup as injury cover to the England set-up, Sale have Cipriani back for the first few weeks of the season which before now, they were preparing for without their talisman.
And what are the fixtures Sale now have their first-choice fly-half available for? Only Saracens away, Worcester at home and Northampton at home.
Getting Cipriani back for the first few weeks of the season whilst many of the Premiership's top-tier internationals are away is HUGE.
Sale faltered badly down the stretch last season which saw them ultimately miss out on a top-six place by a sizeable margin, however its also worth remembering that Sale also got off to a terrible start to the season winning only two out of their first six games.
I have bemoaned Sale's lack of investment and strengthening over the summer ad nauseum, but what it comes down to practically is that if Sale hope to be a team with a legitimate chance of securing a top-six finish this season, getting off to a fast start and racking up early season wins is extremely important.
Indeed playing Saracens, Northampton (and even Harlequins on 6th November if there English contigent are not back) in the season's opening four weeks is something of a blessing in disguise for Sale - when better to face such juggernauts of the English game than when they are missing half their squads to international duty.
And as much as I'd like to believe Sale without Cipriani, Leota, Ioane and Mackenzie (their own World Cup representatives) would be able to somehow take down Saracens at the Allianz and then follow it up with another coup at home against a weary Saints side with two abrasive, hard-fought, victories that whilst ugly, secure Sale 8 points they would have otherwise struggled to win should both sides be at full strength, Sale having their, for want of a better word, star player back in the fold is a huge boost. Travelling down to the Allianz and playing smash-and-grab against a much stronger Saracens side is difficult enough, but having the unique, world-class talents of Cipriani that I alluded to earlier makes a fast start to the season that bit more possible.
Who is to say we've seen the last of Cipriani in an England shirt? I'll admit I have no idea how Lancaster's England will fare at the World Cup but there are still a multiple of possibilities that could conspire to see Cipriani back wearing the Red Rose. What if Lancaster enters 2016 knowing a Six Nations win offer him job security after a disappointing finish to the World Cup? Rather than hasten the transition to the next wave of English players with a view to the 2019 World Cup in Japan, could Lancaster instead pick the strongest squad at his disposal including Cipriani whose half-season form for a (hopefully) high-flying Sale warrants inclusion? What if a less risk-averse coach has replaced Lancaster and is excited to give Cipriani a shot?
Ultimately there is no telling what may happen in the future with Cipriani and England. Whilst it is fun to speculate, it is perhaps more appropriate to focus now on what we do know. As of this moment, Cipriani is not with England preparing for the World Cup. This is bad news for England but not critical to their World Cup chances despite the hyperbole being thrown around by many aggrieved fans of both club and country. It is however great news for Sale, who have the face of the club back for a brutal start to the season.
I will end on a thought that hopefully prompts discussion rather than panic. In February of this year, Danny Cipriani penned a new two-year deal with the club, ostensibly rejecting interest from Toulon. A positive way of looking at it is: if Cipriani saw the 2015 World Cup as his last chance to appear for his nation, why would he have signed a two-year deal as opposed to a single-season contract? Additionally this isn't a Richie Gray situation, Sale are getting great performances out of their marque player and have no intention (I believe) are parting ways prematurely. But conversely, if it becomes clear the England door is now permanently closed to Cipriani after the World Cup, is there anything left for the 28 year-old in Manchester (or indeed England) to stop him chasing the mega-riches that come with playing in France?
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