Award-winning Cipriani still a long shot for Rugby World Cup

FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015 file photo, England's Danny Cipriani races clear to score a try during the Six Nations international rugby unio...

FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015 file photo, England's Danny Cipriani races clear to score a try during the Six Nations international rugby unio...

Unless he has a late and unexpected change of heart, England coach Eddie Jones will be going to this year's Rugby World Cup without the country's best player.

Danny Cipriani, a headline-grabbing flyhalf who splits opinion more than any rugby player in England, has capped a brilliant domestic season — his first with Gloucester — by becoming only the second person to be voted the English Premiership's player of the season by both his peers and journalists in the same year.

At age 31, Cipriani is at the peak of his powers. He might no longer possess the same verve he had as a dashing 20-year-old who tore Ireland apart on his international debut in 2008, but the 2019 version of Cipriani is more assured, more consistent, more clinical — and still has that killer pass and rugby brain that marked him out as such a special talent.

Just ask the notoriously passionate and boisterous fans of Gloucester, which he has guided into the English Premiership playoffs for its first time since 2011.

Why, then, is Cipriani still being overlooked by his national team?

The pair of awards handed to him over the last two weeks only served to add further scrutiny on Jones' decision to overlook Cipriani for England duty the entire season, indeed for most of a tenure that began after the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Cipriani's 16th and last appearance for England was in the third and final test against South Africa in June, his first start in almost a decade. He came off the bench for another test in that series, but they remain his only matches under Jones.

Jones said he left Cipriani out of his squad for the November tests last year purely for form reasons, which raised eyebrows at the time. Yet the flyhalf's level has remained high for the rest of the season and he is still ignored.

Do Cipriani's off-the-field antics over the past decade still tarnish his reputation in Jones' eyes? The fact that he was convicted of assault and resisting arrest following an incident during a night out in preseason with his new Gloucester teammates in August didn't help the cause of a player who no longer is the "celebrity" player he once was.

Cipriani has dated a string of well-known models, sparking many unflattering headlines in the British tabloids in the process. He was banned from driving for 18 months for being nearly twice over the alcohol limit. Various visits to nightclubs and bars resulted in him being hit by a double-decker bus while at English club Sale Sharks (2013), a fine from his then-Australian club Melbourne Rebels (2011) and being dropped by England for what would have been his international debut that week against Scotland (2008).

As a youngster at Wasps, Cipriani was once described by the club's chief executive at the time, Tony Copsey, as a "celebrity foremost and almost a rugby player second" but that tag doesn't still apply. And even Jones admitted to that after selecting him against the Springboks last year.

"I persevered," Cipriani said then, "and made sure I've done everything I can to get back in."

Now he's back on the outside, and it would require an improbable U-turn by Jones for Cipriani to be in his World Cup training squad to be announced in July.

Owen Farrell, the captain, and George Ford are currently the two flyhalves in England's squad and are close friends from their school days. With center Henry Slade an option — if needed — at No. 10, there might not be room for Cipriani in the final 31-man World Cup group even if his versatility means he can also fill in at fullback.

Is Cipriani, with his expansive and attacking style of play, perceived by Jones as just too much of a maverick?

Whatever the reasons, Cipriani's last chance of convincing Jones looks to be this weekend, when Gloucester takes on Saracens in the playoff semifinals and Cipraini goes head to head with Farrell.

Jones will due to be in attendance.

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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