Danny Cipriani’s continued exclusion from the England Elite Player Squad (EPS) raises a valid question of whether he will play for his country again.
Being left out based on form, or down to off-field indiscretions, is one thing. But the reasoning Eddie Jones has offered for Cipriani missing out on both the new EPS squad, and also England’s training camp in Brighton next week, has set a higher bar.
“I don’t see him as a player who comes in the squad as a number three or four player,” said Jones.
“To me he’s not that sort of player, he likes to be the main man. And when he plays well enough to be number one he’ll be in the squad.”
Cracking the squad on form certainly seemed achievable for Cipriani, who on his return to Wasps has shown a number of fine touches, the latest being his grubber and chase out of his own 22 to set up Jimmy Gopperth’s try against Northampton last weekend.
He still misses tackles – nine this season, the fifth most in the league – but the consistency he showed in his final months with Sale and now starting afresh with an unbeaten Wasps side suggested that Cipriani had done enough to be considered among England’s top three or four fly-halves, either just behind or ahead of Henry Slade.
Jones asking Cipriani to play like the best fly-half in the country is another matter. The England boss regards both Ford and Farrell, and their partnership at 10-12, incredibly highly.
“We see George (Ford) and Owen (Farrell) together as one and two. They are 23 and 24 years old, they are the heart of the England side.”
Making a squad is one thing, and tough enough for Cipriani in recent years. Breaking up the “heart” of an England side on a nine-game winning streak under Jones feels close to impossible.
The question until now has been whether Cipriani could do a job if called upon by England, whether he should be part of the playing group, not whether he is the best number ten in the country. The answer to that is that when matched up against Ford and Farrell, at the moment he falls short.
“Danny knows what he’s got to do,” Jones explained.
“Look he’s a talented player but I said it quite clearly to him. At the moment he’s not one or two in England in terms of stand-offs.
“They can organise the team, they are tactically smart. So for Cipriani to get into the squad he’s got to be able to show he can be number one.”
Doubting whether Cipriani can deliver on that front is not a criticism of his talent or work-rate. For him to become the number one fly-half in the country again though requires not only another major lift of his own game, but a loss of form or injury to both Ford and Farrell.
Even with Farrell’s on-going back issue yet to resolve himself, the odds of that happening to both of the duo feel slim.
Cipriani is no longer a young player at 28, at least not when matched up with the 23-year-old trio of Ford, Slade and Alex Lozowski, and the door on his international future is closing fast. As is arguably the case for his own playing career.
Had he known last season what he does now, it is worth asking whether he would have opted to move to France at the end of his Sale contract, instead of staying in the Premiership with the hope of prolonging his Test career.
Now in the midst of some fine form, the road back to playing for England again suddenly feels all too long.