All eyes on Danny Cipriani but England‘s pack need to deliver

All eyes are on Danny Cipriani on his Test return but England‘s pack need to deliver against South Africa

It is going to be fascinating watching Danny Cipriani at Newlands. I have always been a huge supporter — he was the natural heir to Jonny Wilkinson post 2011 and should have 70-80 caps by now.

Yes, he has occasionally been seen as wayward but even those incidents were totally exaggerated and ever since he returned from his spell in Australia at the start of the 2013-14 season he has consistently looked the best English 10 in the Premiership.

Two consecutive England coaches — Martin Johnson and Stuart Lancaster — failed to bite the bullet and give him a Test start and Eddie Jones has waited 30 Test matches before taking the plunge. 

Even now it seems a very fingers-crossed selection rather than one of real endorsement.

So before we go any further, the first thing I would say is ‘Well done, Cipriani‘ for keeping going and refusing to think it was all over.

It almost defies belief that there is this extraordinary 10-year gap since his last England start — to be so talented yet be denied the chance to play at the very top level must have been so frustrating and difficult to handle mentally.

Many would have accepted the inevitable but ultimately, I believe sheer determination and doggedness has helped win over the doubters. 

Now 30, he has worked manfully on his defence, which has been criticised, and although he will never be a Wilkinson in that respect, he is brave and gets his body in the way. 

That, realistically, is all you can ask from your 10. Jonny was a one-off, a defensive phenomenon.

Cipriani‘s passing and distribution is second to none and the way he has sparked Wasps, often playing on the back foot with limited possession, has been a joy in recent seasons.

It is ironic that Willie le Roux‘s return to world-class form and the true emergence of Elliot Daly as an all-round attacking force owe much to benefiting from the brilliant flat-line passing and sumptuous drag backs that are Cipriani‘s trademark at Wasps, not to mention his perfectly weighted nudges down the tramlines which can create havoc.

I am looking forward to watching Jonny May chase a couple of those. Potentially, that could be a devastating combo if they get on the right wavelength.

Yet even this season, when Cipriani has played better than ever, it seemed he would miss out again and understandably he began looking at potential moves to Japan or France. 

When he finally got some words of encouragement he shelved all those plans, and having told Wasps he was leaving, faced a hectic end-of-season ring around to find a Premiership club to play for.

Now he must turn his mind to South Africa and the next 80 minutes of his career. 

Above all, he must try not to overplay his hand, prove anybody wrong or do anything different to what he has been doing for Wasps for two seasons. Just be the consummate team player.

Cipriani is not going to win the match on his own. No player can do that, let alone somebody who has not started a Test in 10 years. 

The only way England will beat South Africa is with a confident, crisp and well-executed team display — and Cipriani‘s job is to contribute to his side‘s performance in every way he can.

He has some dangerous runners to work with but also a wealth of hard-earned experience to guide him. It could be a little bit damp and slippery and England might need to rein in at times and adopt a clever kicking game. 

He can do that as well and must work closely with his skipper, Owen Farrell, to orchestrate the England effort.

The spotlight will undoubtedly be on Cipriani but the evidence of the first two Tests suggests that the absolute key for England is a powerful 80-minute effort from their pack. 

The drying up of possession and an endless stream of penalties conceded up front is where England faltered in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.

Their pack need to raise their game and it is interesting that Eddie has gone with a 6-2 split on the bench, indicating that he wants the options of ringing the changes and perhaps quickly if he senses the forwards are beginning to struggle.

England are traditionally strong in the scrum but were obliterated in Bloemfontein. If that happens on Saturday, it‘s game over.

Both Vunipola brothers are absent so there is a huge onus on Joe Marler and Nathan Hughes to fill big boots and illness for Brad Shields sees the unexpected return of Chris Robshaw.

It feels like a conservative selection — just one non-enforced change (Cipriani) from last week and I do again wonder at those who have travelled with England and had no game time at all, not least Dan Robson, who would have been itching to at least get on the bench.

Conservative selection or not, England know they are still good enough to win in Cape Town. 

They have shown in bursts in the opening two Tests just how talented they are and that has been the great frustration of this tour — there have been some very high- quality moments followed by some inexplicable losses of concentration and intensity.

If England, with Cipriani at the helm, can just put in a proper rock-solid 80 minutes of rugby they will win. 

South Africa are improving and are beginning to get on a roll but they still have a way to go and are right at the end of a long, troubled season.

England need to expose the frailties that still exist in the Springboks team. Do that and their off-season will be so much more enjoyable.

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