Danny Cipriani reflects on rugby’s “fear-based coaching” and worries that the sport he loves will be a niche offering in next to no time without bold changes.
The former Wasps and England fly-half has strong opinions on where the sport must go, and how it has to shed its ego and learn from football. But then Cipriani turns to Steve Borthwick’s England, and his outlook brightens.
Supporters at Sunday’s 34-12 World Cup win over Japan booed frequent kicking, as England continue to battle a misfiring attack.
Cipriani believes head coach Borthwick is already moving England towards a more uplifting vision — but insists the transition will take time.
Borthwick is trying to transition out of a fear-based culture into one that’s more expressive and joyous
“Rugby is led in fear and it’s stat-based, but we have to start expanding our mindset if we want the game to grow and we want kids to be involved in it,” Cipriani told Standard Sport. “Otherwise, rugby will become a niche sport in five years.
“I’m not trying to sound smart, I’m being 100 per cent honest about how the game will go without changes to make the sport more exciting for kids from council estates.
“They want to make their own decisions, be their own men, and they can do that while also learning from great coaches. Stat-driven coaching can mean we don’t see the flow of the game and how people can make more decisions for themselves. That’s why the game isn’t progressing.
“England have had the straitjacket on through external pressures, but I think Steve Borthwick is trying to transition them now out of a fear-based culture into one that’s more expressive and joyous. Slowly and surely, you’re seeing people start to enjoy themselves more and more.
“The World Cup has to be mainly about winning, but Steve and his coaches’ long-term plan is clearly about individuals taking responsibility and playing in an expressive, decision-making manner. It’s already starting to change.”
Cipriani expects Borthwick’s England to be an entirely new proposition within two years. “The 12-month plan, the four-year plan, it will look very different, and it’s very exciting,” said the 35-year-old. “There have been times where they have connected as a group in attack. The execution, that can go to another level, but that will come with confidence.
“I firmly believe the next 12 to 24 months will be fascinating, and for now at the World Cup, they will keep finding ways to win.”
Cipriani captivated English rugby with swashbuckling attacking play from his 2006 Wasps debut to the end of a stint at Bath in 2022. Cipriani remains open to a rugby return and is talking to five teams about a possible deal.
Johnny Sexton is piloting Ireland’s World Cup charge at 38, so Cipriani, three years the Lions star’s junior, sees no reason to rule anything out.
Cipriani knows his memoir ‘Who Am I?’ will have coaches wary, but he still believes the right fit could see him flourish again on the field.
“Because of some of the things I’ve been saying, inviting me in can sound a scary prospect,” said Cipriani, speaking as part of the Under the Surface podcast with menswear brand Original Penguin x CALM.
“But if a club’s moving into a more expansive, expressive, free way of playing the game, at an extremely high level, it will be attractive. I have four or five coaches around the world I’m going to speak to and give my insight of how I see the game. I feel fantastic, so whether [a return] comes or not, I’m ready.”
Cipriani had conflicts with coaches, but far beyond any blame game, he now believes rugby has to modernise to maximise individual talents.
“Rugby could learn so much from football, but we have this ego around rugby values,” said Cipriani. “We are missing a trick in the emotional intelligence that a Pep Guardiola has to allow a Jack Grealish, an Erling Haaland, a Kyle Walker, all these talents to thrive as individuals but within a framework.”
Cipriani was speaking in partnership with the Under the Surface podcast with menswear brand Original Penguin x CALM. Listen to the full episode at originalpenguin.co.uk/pages/calm-underthesurface