When Danny Cipriani made his return to Wasps for the 2016-17 campaign, some onlookers went as far as to hail it as the return of the prodigal son.
Even the most ardent of Wasps supporters, however, would find it hard to disagree that Cipriani was the worst player in Dai Young’s backline last season.
Not only did Cipriani fail to pencil himself in as a automatic starter for Wasps, but he came up short once again in convincing Eddie Jones’ that he has something to offer England as we edge towards 2019’s World Cup in Japan.
Admittedly it was a season in which the club topped the Premiership table going into the play-offs, but questions nevertheless have to be raised regarding not only whether Cipriani is as good a player as when he left Wasps in 2010, but if his inclusion in this rejuvenated Wasps side is in fact a hinderance to the team as a whole.
Now the first thing to say is that this is by no means a knee-jerk reaction to last weekend’s gripping Aviva Premiership final, which saw Exeter Chiefs edge out Young’s Wasps in a dramatic climax to the English domestic campaign.
The truth is that Wasps’ relative success last season masked the underlying problems within their squad composition. We don’t need to spend time going over what Cipriani does and doesn’t do so well. He is, and always has been, a Quade Cooper-esque mercurial talent with the vision and outside-the-box thinking that most top-level players can only dream of.
Yet if we cast our minds back to the Premiership victors of years gone by, such maverick fly-halves have been few and far between. Instead, it has been the reliable steady Eddie-type number 10 that has been at the crux of these title-winning sides; Owen Farrell, Stephen Myler, and most recently Gareth Steenson, to name just a few.
In a back division that last season also included the likes of England’s Elliot Daly, Springbok Willie Le Roux and the departing Wallaby Kurtley Beale, the fact of the matter is that Cipriani’s flair has somewhat faded in the background.
What these scintillating open-field runners outside the fly-half really needed was someone with outstanding distribution and game-management skills, competencies not possessed by Cippers.
In other words, Cipriani is surplus to requirements at Wasps.
Add to that the continuous battle with Kiwi veteran Jimmy Gopperth for a starting berth in Young’s starting XV and the truth is that Cipriani struggled to make the impression that so many had hoped he would.
While Gopperth wore 12 on his back for the majority of the campaign, in reality the 33-year-old was simultaneously performing the duties of the stand-off, thus relegating Cipriani’s ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck in a way that a commanding fly-half should be able to at this level.
Perhaps Cipriani’s saving grace last term was the fact that nobody made the 12 jersey their own – Beale’s versatility was deployed all across the backline, while summer recruit Kyle Eastmond failed to secure a regular first XV spot for himself following his move from Bath.
Another factor in all this is Cipriani’s goal-kicking. There are numerous examples of players who have earned themselves a starting jersey in international and club rugby because of their expertise with the ball off the tee – this is not something that can be said of Cipriani and only adds to his vulnerability when it comes to Wasps’ team selection.
While we all enjoyed Wasps attacking ambition and propensity to entertain last season, it’s hard to deny that Young’s men did not equal the sum of their individual parts. “Too many cooks spoil the broth” is how the saying goes, and head chef Dai Young must re-think his ingredients if they are to go one step further next season and be crowned English champions.
This problem would be alleviated if Wasps were to swallow their pride and offload Cipriani to a team in which he could be the main man once again. At 29-years-old, Cippers is no spring chicken anymore and all rugby fans ought to want to see the former England starlet playing at his peak wherever that may be.
Regardless, Wasps were incredibly unlcuky to miss out on the title this year, and were outstanding throughout the normal campaign. With this in mind, how many of their players make The Premiership XV of the season…