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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 March, 2005, 12:08 GMT 13:08 UK
The players boss: Damian Hopley
Damian Hopley, chief executive of the PRA
Hopley set up the PRA after injury ended his playing career
Damian Hopley is the chief executive of the Professional Rugby players Association, which he set up in 1998.

A former England international centre, he was forced to retire from the game at the age of 27.

Describing himself as "bitter and twisted" at the time, he said his lack of support from the game's governing body "drove him to set up a body to protect players' futures".

The association, to which his 450 members pay 100 a year, aims to ensure players have the necessary insurance cover and legal backing, as well as direction for alternative education/occupation outside of the game.

Here he talks to BBC Sport in detail about the problems faced by players 10 years into professionalism.

PROTECTING THE PLAYERS

At a recent dinner former Lions captain Willie John McBride talked about Sandy Carmichael and Ray McLoughlin from the 1971 tour and how they have had five hip operations between them.

That's a concern as the game was far less physically demanding back then. The fear is that we'll have an epidemic of ex-players with some serious problems. For example, I've already had six knee operations - we just don't know the long-term implications for player injuries yet.

One major issue is the governing bodies have failed to address the issue of player welfare for a long time. Only now when the England team is in disarray has it truly become an issue... and that's sad.

England coach Andy Robinson
Andy Robinson is definitely the right man to lead England
Damian Hopley on the England coach
The Six Nations has shown the problem Premiership-wide and the increasing pressure on players. There are big-name internationals out injured and many more club players injured who we do not hear about.

Players are supposedly restricted to 32 games a season but there are many caveats to that limit. If a player plays just 40 minutes that doesn't count as a game. So you can actually play 52 halves in a season and still not have been registered as having played one game which is a nonsense.

There is so much pressure on the players and some of the injuries players will sustain will be career ending - on average one player per club per season will sustain a career-threatening injury.

The average wage of a professional rugby player in England is 56,000 and it is imperative that we prepare players to make a seamless transition to life after rugby.

But there are only so many media and coaching roles going about, so it is up the the industry to provide resources and career coaching to best advise the players.

At the PRA, we are in the first year of a three-year burnout audit, looking at a Lions year to find out what the risk of burnout is and what exactly it entails - physical, mental, emotional or otherwise.

There is an overwhelming case for increasing the off season and trying to deliver a season that's structured.

We need to follow the Australian model. They have five weeks off, then have four weeks of aerobic training with no contact, then three weeks contact work before the season starts. That's certainly helped by central contracts, even though I never envisage them existing in England.

We need to see wholesale changes by next season, however the Heineken Cup and Zurich Premiership should be maintained in their current status quo as they have been tremendous successes of the professional era.

INSIDE THE PRA
Formed: 1998 by Damian Hopley as voice and body of professional rugby union players in England
Why set up: To look after professional players from top stars to academy players
Chairman: Pat Sanderson (Worcester flanker)
Chief executive: Damian Hopley (ex-England centre)
Members: 450
PRA motto: "To promote and protect the interests of our members by endeavouring to safeguard their futures both on and off the pitch. The officers and members of the PRA work in partnership with the game's governing bodies to further the cause of Rugby Union in this country"

But the time has come to ditch the European Shield and Challenge Cup, and move the Powergen Cup earlier in the season.

Player revolt?

Andy Robinson is definitely the right man to lead England. He has a very good working relationship with the clubs and great experience as a former director of rugby at Bath.

But if the pressure on the players doesn't change, there will come a point when they say they've had enough.. If they don't get the right leadership, they'll take matters into their own hands. By that I mean more of a coup d'etat than a player strike.

And if we don't do anything about the pressures on our elite players, we'll be totally incapable of defending our World Cup crown.

The problem could be even wider reaching than that if it's not addressed. I don't see drugs are a problem right now. In fact, it's a tremendously honest sport.

But if we keep making demands on the players, the temptation could be too much.

Despite the lack of a structured season and the club-versus-country issues, professionalisation has been a great success, with a World Cup win and four European Cup successes to date.

I have no doubt that will continue with the appropriate changes in place.



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