We kick-off our brand new series, ‘Between the Lines‘ with this in-depth interview into the life and career of former England fly-half and current Wasps superstar, Danny Cipriani. A career oozing with both class and controversy, Cross The Line meets the man behind it all.
Danny Cipriani (born 2 November 1987) is an English rugby union player who currently plays for Premiership team Wasps. Danny plays as fly-half and fullback. Dubbed as one of the brightest players to grace the game, the 29-year-old has played for the Melbourne Rebels, Sale Sharks and England as well as Wasps. He started his professional career at the Wasps academy in 2003 and has gone on to play for some of the top clubs in the world and also represent his country. A career which has been upheld by injuries that has at times taken away the gloss, we delve a little closer into the world of, Danny Cipriani.
Where does your Rugby derive from?
“It was more like a love for sport really because it was an opportunity to hang out with my friends and have that camaraderie with those guys and see what sport can bring. You automatically gain eleven team-mates if it’s football, or fifteen if it’s rugby and that was obviously a big draw for me, especially being an only child I’d live for the weekends and hang out with my mates in that way.”
So at what point did you think being a professional Rugby player might actually be on the cards, as football was also an option wasn’t it?
“Yeah, I mean my Mum was doing her best to steer me away from football because she grew up from up north and just wanted me to have a god education, so her priority was to make sure I went to the best school I could or one which was rugby dominant. Anything that was sort of football related, she would keep quiet about and just keep pushing me towards Rugby which I ended up doing. I guess I never really thought that I would get the opportunity to play professionally until I was offered any deal. About 6 months before I was offered a pro-contract, things became a bit surreal as I was now going into a position where I could play professionally.”
So it kind of sounds like you did what your Mum told you to do!
“Yeah! It wasn’t really because she said it, she would just try and subtly manoeuvre me towards the Rugby side of things which was all good I suppose. I tell you what, I wouldn’t mind playing upfront for Chelsea now though!”
Well, you had the likes of Tim Sherwood vouching for your footballing ability as well as some opportunities at the likes of QPR. Did the idea of becoming a professional footballer ever cross your mind or was it a case that when you were offered a Rugby deal, that would be it for you?
“It was something that I did when I was a young guy, playing both rugby and football and then having the opportunity to continue with rugby at the age of fifteen I just kept going with it really.
I did train with Spurs, QPR and M.K. Dons when I was younger and I had 5 months off with the Premiership teams to go to Australia and it was just a great opportunity to keep fit and do something else which I loved to do. It was obviously nice for someone like Tim Sherwood, a legend to say those things about me and that did help me on my own journey.”
So you obviously ended up choosing Rugby, let’s talk about that. You’re back playing for Wasps in what is your second stint at the club. You’ve said you’ve come back with “a better brain and as a better fly-half”, what have you learnt since you were last at the club?
“I think when I first started playing at the club, I just couldn’t have had a better team around me. Everywhere I looked there were England internationals and other international players all around me which was amazing. I learnt a lot from Alex King, because in my first season I played full-back and then I was moved to fly-half, but he taught me a lot and the position and the game in general.
You find different reasons to love it and that happens throughout your career. I then moved to Sale and I really had to take on a leadership and a driving force role at the club in terms of how we can win games as we didn’t have a lot of money and had to do the best with what we had, and we did that for the seasons that I was there. That was a huge learning curve for me to be apart of that kind of squad and I enjoyed that. Then I looked at another opportunity to join Wasps and hopefully try and drive the team who reached the play-offs before and although we didn’t quite win the final, we had a successful season and learnt a lot of lessons along the way. This season is all about going that one step further now, we know it will be difficult with the quality in the league but it’s a very exciting proposition.”
Now that you’ve had the chance to ply your trade abroad, what is so special about coming back to Premiership rugby?
“I think the war of attrition, on any given day, any side can beat anyone. From top to bottom, you’ve got to be playing your best, otherwise you will get beat. I enjoyed my time in Australia but it was very much a different style of rugby where there was more of a dominance, compared to over where were that really is that war of attrition and a lot of rivals. Now that we’ve moved to the Ricoh Arena, we’ve got 4 or 5 other teams in our vicinity which attracts bigger crowds and makes for great occasions.”
Danny, let’s press you for the best player you’ve played against in your career.
“I’d probably have to say, New Zealand’s number 8, Kieran Read. He just has it all, he’s very intelligent and also has the skills to back it up.”
It’s been about 10 years since your England debut, looking back, what are your thoughts and memories of that time?
“To be honest, I don’t really remember it. It’s one of those things that just happens and you go along with it really. I thoroughly enjoyed it and to get that cap and play in a game was incredible but it was just such a shame that I got the injury at the end of that season. But to fight my way back into that squad was probably one of my greatest achievements in my career and pushing so close in that World Cup squad.
I know I just fell short of making it, but it certainly wasn’t through the lack of trying, sometimes poachers just want to go one route at the end of the day.”
As a young man, how did you handle the expectation surrounding you as a future rugby star?
“I thought I handled it pretty well and to be honest, it was the media who didn’t handle it well and lost their nuts over it. They decided to write mad stories everyday and when you’re in that situation you just have to get on with it and go through it. The media obviously wanted to build something up, whatever that may be and that I had to try and aspire to be that. For whatever reason it didn’t happen but I had to keep coming back and fight, be resilient and that’s something I taught myself to be when I was a kid.”
Why do you think the media eye was so focused on you?
“I think part of it was after the whole palaver when I was dropped just before the Scotland game. All of a sudden, I was the first rugby played to be paparazzied, whatever that was and then they got involved in my dating life. I guess, I didn’t play Rugby massively conventionally back then and they seemed to latch onto it and maybe the whole package of how my life was going at that point was attractive for the media to write about.
You know, I just wanted to live my life and I guess the only thing on my moral compass that I’m disappointed with myself about is the whole drink driving situation. But you look at a lot of the stories and it’s just a lot of nonsense really but you know they try to paint this picture of me but I’ve learned from it and I know I need to handle the responsibility better as a result. If I can, I’d love to help out with younger sportspeople as I know they will be going through this a lot.”
When the media are all over you and you’ve found yourself in some hot-water, do you look back and regret those things or is it a case of they are learning curves and the media have blown them out of proportion?
“You know, you can look at them how you want. Lots of these stories are about dating, others they have made up and people have their own agenda, whether that be to sell a product, make a story or do something but at the end of the day there is always more to it. When you see a story, you will read it and let that absorb into you and shape how you look or feel about someone and how they can be like. When I was younger, I found that really hard but luckily I went to Australia and had a great two years out there. It was almost like a well paid gap year and whilst I was still playing rugby, I needed that break and finally came up with the mindset to come back again and break into the England squad which I did and I can now safely say I put my best foot forward.”
How would you like rugby fans to remember you by when you do eventually hang up your boots, Danny?
“Rugby’s a unique sport, it’s a very enjoyable sport to watch but to actually know what’s going on is very unique in that fashion. Each player has a role to play with the context of the team and whilst they know what their role is, it must be hard for fans to also see that and I guess that’s why rugby divides opinions and brings about controversy. I can be remembered however people want to remember me, but I’m really enjoying the next few years which will be the best years ahead of me and I know that I need to be as resilient as possible.”
Have you considered the coaching side of things once you retire?
“Yeah, potentially the coaching side of things. I do think there is an opportunity for a new positive change in rugby and whilst it is a great sport and I enjoy it, but the more pressurised it becomes it needs to have experience with that young coaching generation coming through which I think will improve the game even more. It’s going to be an exciting transition in the sport over the next ten years and I’ve still got another five or 6 years left in me, so I’m excited to play my part in that transition, so we will see.”
You mentioned there you’ve still go the best years to come, what ambitions have you still to reach in the game, or are you merely taking it a game at a time simply because you love the sport?
“I just want to develop myself as both a player and a person. I want to help other players and younger players develop too and help them keep moving forward. I want to be a positive influence on my team-mates and I do try to do that and have a good working relationship with my coaches and help drive the team forward to the championship. It’s a great challenge now and I’m ready to adapt to it and give it my all for the team.”
What advice would you give to young aspiring fly-half’s in the game today?
“Play lots of different sports as a kid. Football is a great one as it allows you to develop your spacial awareness. Cricket is great for hand eye co-ordination but football in particular as you can tune into depth perception as you can see if the defenders are close to you or the strikers are driving at you, it gives you that peripheral vision. Watch videos of players and see what they are doing and why they are doing it. Ask lots of questions too. You may find some coaches don’t like that, but just find a way to word them and ask questions so you can continue to learn and improve yourself as a fly-half. There are some great young players coming through now and I’m excited to see them in the future.”
How transferable are the skills from other sports into a game like rugby? Do you think you’d be as a good as you are now, without that footballing pedigree you had as a youngster?
“I was very fortunate to have a very forward thinking coach in Brian Ashton, still to this day one of the best coaches I’ve ever had and he would set up drills and creating plays that allowed us to think for ourselves instead of giving us drills which were already worked out for us. He’s about helping us make our own decision as when it comes to the heat of the battle on the field, we were ready to make those quick decisions at decisive times and that can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing. It’s all about teaching kids to think for themselves and how to solve problems which will help them develop as players in the future.”
Social media is such a huge sensation is today’s society, as professional athlete, is social media a blessing or a curse?
“See I think on the whole it’s probably a curse in terms of what it’s doing to the world and how it’s shaping the mindsets of young women and things like that. It’s a difficult world to be in, your 12-year-old could be putting themselves on Instagram and receive messages from X, Y and Z so it can certainly be seen as a curse. It obviously has some benefits when used for good but when you’re young it’s a hard microbe to be in. As a sportsmen it’s brilliant as it’s a great platform to share things but areas such as advertisement can be tricky etc, however I think in today’s society we need to stay relevant and to do so means we need to be engaging in this type of thing a lot and sometimes it can be hard to post. There will be some posts I enjoy putting out and others that I’m a little wary of and worry if it was too narcissistic but ultimately you’ve just got to roll with it. Those people who are using it for the good of others are the ones who use it well.”
Danny, just to finish, it would be great to know what you like to do away from the game to kick back and relax.
“I love to just lie on the sofa, because I’m normally shattered after training! Nah, something that I love to do is go to the cinema and get lost in a film, or a book. I like to read and immerse myself in a good book, I do that a lot at night. I enjoy hanging out with my friends and for me, that’s the best way to kick back and relax.”