IN early 1996, the rugby world was Damian Hopley's oyster. Aged 26, the promising Wasps and England player stood on the verge of the big-time, ready to cash in his copious talents during the first full season of professionalism. Having come through the England ranks at schoolboy, colt and student levels, with a Cambridge Blue just for good measure, Hopley first caught the eye in 1993 as a member of the team who lifted the inaugural World Cup Sevens in Edinburgh. Debut caps for England in the 1995 World Cup against Western Samoa were followed by further appearances at Twickenham in the autumn Tests against South Africa. A big, powerful runner, converted from centre to wing, Hopley appeared to be just the sort of physically imposing lump that the then England coach Jack Rowell was looking for, combining brawn with a sound footballing brain. A lengthy and successful career beckoned. And then, captaining England at the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens, the sky fell in. Twisting to evade a tackle from Scotland's Gregor Townsend, he collapsed in agony, his cruciate knee ligaments snapping. He hobbled out of the tournament on crutches and has played only a handful of games since. Two operations to reconstruct his damaged knee have been followed by two unsuccessful comebacks. And as if a career-threatening injury was not bad enough, Hopley has also had to deal with the supreme misfortune that neither club nor country had insured him against his injury, leaving him severely out of pocket. Appallingly, the English Rugby Football Union (RFU) has so far failed to pay Hopley any sort of compensation. Now, out of contract with Wasps ('They were incredibly supportive, but they couldn't keep me on indefinitely'), he is embarking on a new career as chief executive of the Professional Rugby Players Association (PRA), a de facto players union. 'I don't want what happened to me to be a common occurrence,' said Hopley, in town this week as a guest speaker at the Hong Kong Sevens Long Lunch. 'That's why I became involved. Players have to be protected in the modern game and there is a clear need for a body like the PRA.' Already, some 500 players have signed up to the fledgling organisation. As well as providing advice and representation to players, the body will also offer career guidance to those reaching the end of their careers. 'The whole culture of rugby in Britain is undergoing massive changes. Whereas before, many players would go through university and finish their education and start playing, now you've got guys who are 17 or 18 being signed up by clubs,' said Hopley. 'I can't blame the clubs for taking on players at a young age, but I do wonder what is going to happen to those players when they finish playing. There are, after all, only so many jobs for media pundits in the market-place.' If there has been one small plus from Hopley's hellish past two years, it is that he has not become directly embroiled in the ugly disputes between English clubs and the RFU. 'The whole thing is just phenomenally boring,' he sighed. 'It's symptomatic of the small-mindedness in the game. There is a genuine concern that if we don't sort it out soon, we will slip even further behind the Southern Hemisphere nations than we already have. There have been some success stories but there are just too many hidden agendas on all sides. 'There have been signs that this is starting to change. I hope that it does.' Inevitably, talk drifts around to his injury. Having been away for so long, is it possible to get back? 'I hope so . . . I'm still only 28. But coming back after major knee surgery was always going to be difficult,' he said. 'It's a very frustrating and an incredibly lonely existence. But you always have hope - I look at somebody like Michael Jones, who has been through this and come back to be one of the best players in the world. It can be done but it's not going to be easy. 'Sooner or later I know that somewhere along the line I'm going to have make a hard decision, namely, do I keep persevering and battling or do I say okay, that's it, you've had your moment in the sun, knock it on the head?'. Hopley is one of rugby's genuine good guys. It would be nice if the sun could shine on his career once more.