Events this week brought to mind my favourite rugby photo, an image that promised an end to the dark days of austerity and hinted at the arrival of success and gaiety. The Cavaliers had beaten the Roundheads.
It came from the England-Ireland Six Nations clash in March 2008 when Danny Cipriani had taken the No.10 shirt from Jonny Wilkinson and proceeded to mark his winning debut with 18-points and a sparkling individual display.
Late in the game Wilkinson, looking every inch yesterday’s man, was summoned from the bench – at inside centre – and the picture is of the young Cipriani pointing where he wants Wilkinson to stand.
The look on the latter’s face can be politely distilled to ‘I have played this game once or twice before you know, pal.”
Wind the clock 30 months forward, though and Wilkinson is favourite to start the autumn internationals while Cipriani this week flew out to Australia to join the expansion Super 15 outfit Melbourne Rebels.
Which is such a shame because a fit, in-form, on-message Cipriani would be the best thing that could happen to England before the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
He still has a chance of rebuilding his on-pitch reputation between now and then but it’s difficult to imagine him having much of a role in New Zealand.
Martin Johnson, after all, does not come across as a man keen to build bridges towards a player – no matter how gifted – intent on burning them.
Wilkinson, Toby Flood and Charlie Hodgson will do just fine for the next few matches and Cipriani will stew in his own juices in the southern hemisphere.
One can only hope he returns a better player and more mature person and that he becomes less likely to be photographed outside a nightclub just before a big match and more positive towards his coaches’ ways of working.
If not he will go down as a wasted talent, one whose ‘specialness’ alienated as many as it attracted and as perhaps the biggest casualty of the professional era.
With so much money and so much profile invested into international, Heineken Cup and Premiership rugby these days, fewer and fewer people will be willing to take a risk on gifted mavericks and the sport is poorer for it.