Rugby Union: Hunter's idealism carries him beyond the pain barrier: Northampton's injury-prone full-back returns to club duty today with a quiet eye on resurrecting his international career. Steve Bale reports

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HERE is an unthinkable reflection on this modern rugby world, unthinkable because it comes from an England international. 'There is a big point to make about why we go out on Saturday and train on Tuesday and Thursday: because we love playing the game.'

Not a trace of cynicism and, good heavens, no mention of money - sorry, material reward from non-rugby-related activities. Just the unalloyed joy of running, passing, kicking and tackling, and when you remember that Ian Hunter has spent more time not doing these things over the past year or so than doing them, perhaps his idealism is not so surprising after all.

The 24-year-old graphic designer at last returns to the game he loves this afternoon when he reappears at full-back for Northampton at Bristol. He has one successful second- team game behind him. It is more than four months since a dislocated shoulder put him out of the Lions tour of New Zealand after half of the first match. In Hunter's case it was par for the course; last season was an endless recuperation.

Knee, eye, shoulder. . . one anatomical thing after another before, during and after Hunter became an England (and Lions) wing. Wing? That's another story which may have ended now that Jon Webb has retired and England are looking for a full-back. 'Without any question he is a full-back - who can also play on the wing,' Glenn Ross, the New Zealander who coaches him at Northampton, said.

More of that later. Meanwhile Hunter's recent misfortune has been such that recapturing an England place is low among his priorities. 'I like playing for England - and I would like to play for England,' he said. 'But I've decided that for me this season is simply to get back into the rugby scene.

'The rest will take care of itself. To think above the club is pointless because in the end it's not up to me. If England decide my form is good enough I will be selected.' Fair enough, but Hunter is already in the England squad and, with New Zealand at Twickenham on 27 November, the only realistic full-back opposition is provided by Jonathan Callard, of Bath, in prime form, and David Pears of Harlequins, who because of his own injury problem may not play for another month.

Which presumes Hunter, in accordance with his desire, is not still being considered as a wing. Even if this presumption is rash, Hunter points out that playing out of position was an additional reason that last season was so trying for him. Add all the injuries and you find a player of immense talent driven to distraction. 'I had played really well the previous season, got

myself fit, and then everything seemed to go wrong,' he said. 'I had freakish accidents, got a kick in the eye, hurt myself playing football and finally dislocated my shoulder. I never really enjoyed my rugby. I only played a handful of games for my club and was always battling my way back from injury.'

Not quite everything went wrong; for one thing, Hunter played for England. But what a season it was. He had - impressively - gone through the England B tour of New Zealand on one leg because of fluid on the knee. Then there was a knee operation in September but a remarkably quick recovery permitted his England debut on the wing against Canada last October.

Two tries meant his retention out of position against South Africa, but he was kicked on the leg playing football with his Northampton team-mates and had to make way for Tony Underwood, a real wing. With Geoff Cooke and the England management obsessed with keeping him on the wing, Hunter returned against France, scoring the critical try, but when he faced Wales his eyeball was scratched and when he was chosen for the Lions as a wing it was more on faith than certainty.

The rest was dismal history for Hunter and if he was never stuck on the wing again he would hardly complain. The way he talks suggests he is not too bothered about playing for England, either. 'I can only hope the bad luck is all behind me. It was hard because I was open for criticism for being selected out of position and for going through with it when not fully fit.

'I've put that behind me now. I'm injury-free and all I'm looking forward to is a full season of rugby. Only time, and how I play, will

decide what will happen from there. I'm not putting added pressure on myself by worrying about England now that Jon Webb has retired. That's the last thing on my mind. If I'm chosen I'll be pleased; if not, I'll be giving my support from the touchline. I've changed.'

Hunter will play wing if required but it is less a preference than a requirement that henceforth he be considered at full-back, where Northampton will continue to pick him long after today's First Division game at Bristol is out of the way. 'I'm not even contemplating changing position,' he said. 'I play because I enjoy it and the position I enjoy is full-back. If England said I wouldn't ever play unless I moved to wing I wouldn't play for England. I would carry on with my club rugby at full-back.'

This is evidence of change. As he makes his comeback, rugby no longer gets to Ian Hunter beyond its basic pleasure: enjoyment, pure and simple. If Cooke wants a reference, how about this from Glenn Ross? 'Fully fit, he is one of the most gifted rugby players I've ever been associated with - and I've been associated with a few.'

If Ross needs a reference he used to coach Waikato, who now hold New Zealand rugby's mystical prize, the Ranfurly Shield. Partial witness he may be, but surely good enough for Hunter. . . and England.

(Photograph omitted)