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Exclusive: Danny Cipriani opens up on how mindfulness helps him tackle England "hurt"

BTSport.com sits down for a fascinating interview with England's forgotten man, who lifts the lid on dealing with setbacks, the wider mental health problems in sport, his next career move and his post-retirement plans.

For a man who once again finds himself on the periphery of Eddie Jones’s World Cup plans, Danny Cipriani is remarkably philosophical.

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After a weekend that saw England record an astounding bonus-point victory over Ireland in Dublin, the 31-year-old would be forgiven for wondering what might have been.

It’s almost 11 years to the day that Cipriani, then the heir-apparent to Jonny Wilkinson’s throne, burst on to the international scene, scoring 18 points in a conclusive Six Nations win over Ireland in his first start in an England shirt.

Fast forward to 2019 and the Gloucester fly-half has been forced to accept that his man-of-the-match performance at Twickenham that day might end up being the high point of his international career.

Cipriani was recalled to England's squad last summer after a three-year absence, but has not featured under Jones since June's third Test against South Africa.

Speaking exclusively to BTSport.com ahead of a recent appearance on Rugby Tonight, Cipriani revealed that practising mindfulness has helped him come to terms with his seemingly never-ending battle to establish himself as an England mainstay.

"I feel like life throws up situations, whether they be good or bad, and there’s always lessons to be learned. That’s how I view everything," says Cipriani.

"If it’s a good thing, I think ‘what’s the experience? How can I learn from it?’ and if it’s a bad thing it’s the same mantra.

"Obviously it hurts when I don’t get picked. But my mindset is always to make sure my performance doesn’t dip and to make sure I’m always performing at an elite level."

The former Wasps star is widely recognised as one of the most talented English players in recent years and his failure to convince Jones of his credentials has left many commentators baffled.

When Owen Farrell’s participation in England’s Six Nations opener was put in jeopardy by a thumb injury, the Australian head coach ignored pleas to recall Cipriani, opting instead to gamble on his co-captain recovering in time.

Wilkinson, England’s 2003 World Cup winning fly-half, recently revealed anxiety and mental health issues during his playing career made him "miserable" and Cipriani says mindfulness has helped him deal with the stress of competition for international selection.

"Everyone’s always searching for something, whether it be a partner or religion," he says.

"After meeting certain people in my life, I’ve connected with mindfulness and spirituality and they’ve helped me get through times that would have been frustrating or tough to deal with otherwise.

“I like the mentality of it. It really resonates with me.”

As a man who is familiar with the highs and lows of professional rugby, it’s no surprise to hear the south London-born star is acutely aware of the need to promote better understanding of mental health in sportsmen and women.

"I saw Dafydd James talk about how he’s struggled after playing sport and those conversations are invaluable," says Cipriani.

James, a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international, revealed he suffers panic attacks almost a decade after retiring.

The ex-wing said he "lost his identity" after a fractured vertebrae effectively ended his playing career.

"Massive respect to him, because nobody talks about that when you’re 15, 16 starting out as a sportsman," says Cipriani.

"All you’re worried about is how you get to your goal. When you get there and it’s done, you feel unprepared for what comes after. I think it’s an important conversation to have."

Cipriani’s comments come at a time when there is increased scrutiny on athlete welfare, particularly in the transition from playing to retirement.

Earlier this month, former Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton revealed she contemplated suicide after a failed attempt to climb Mount Everest.

The 38-year-old says she "turned a corner" after discovering a passion for surfing - an interest she shares with Cipriani.

"I’m big into it, but I’m not very good!" says Cipriani, who often spends his summer holidays riding the waves of Malibu in California.

"For me, it’s more about the people I spend my time with in the off-season.

"I’ve been going there for the last five years and the people and the conversations you have really help me to expand my mind beyond rugby.

"A sportsman’s identity is so wrapped up in the sport, but there’s so much more. So much more to learn.

"All the experiences you have become about how you can pass your learnings on and how you can positively help other people."

That desire to help others means Cipriani is keen to coach when he eventually hangs up his boots.

"I’d like to coach at some point and go on a mentoring course," he says. 

"My mentor, Steve Black [who also worked with Wilkinson], has had a huge influence on me and I’d like to have that same impact on younger athletes.

"Not necessarily in rugby. I think it would be interesting to dip into other sports and use the difficulties I’ve faced to help people get the most out of their careers."

Cipriani is in talks with Gloucester about extending his stay at Kingsholm, but the former Sale Sharks star admits he could be tempted by the chance to play in France.

"The opportunity to play in France and ply your trade in another part of the world is an unbelievable opportunity and I’m fully aware how fortunate I am to have that opportunity as a rugby player,” he says.

"There’s plenty to weigh up, in terms of family, financial motivation and the desire of the team.

"What are the group trying to achieve? That’s huge for me. If their aspirations are big and I can help match them then you will have symmetry in what you’re trying to do, which is important."

One thing is for sure: there won’t be a shortage of suitors should Cipriani finally decide to give up on his England dream.

He has, however, ruled out following his friend and former Wasps team-mate, Christian Wade, in pursuing a career in American football.

“I love to watch the NFL but there’s not many positions… let's just say I wouldn’t be able to do what Wade is trying to do!” he laughs.

“I’ve tried to kick an NFL ball and it was fun but I’ll leave it at that!”

Danny Cipriani's Gloucester take on Exeter Chiefs at Kingsholm in the Gallagher Premiership on Friday, February 15th and BT Sport is the only place to watch all the action live from 7pm onwards. If you're not yet a subscriber, find out how we can get you set up in just 15 minutes.

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