Rugby Union / University Match: Hopley not to be caught on the hop: Two players with a single aim set their sights on today's 111th confrontation between the old enemies: Steve Bale on a Light Blue who welcomes a chance to be the centre of attention

WHEN Damian Hopley announced himself to the rugby world, it was in ringing tones. As the 20-year-old surged past the England captain, no less, we saw another England centre in the making. Or so we thought. Here he is, two years on, still waiting on the same Will Carling.

'That was 1990; it seems like ages ago,' Hopley wistfully reflected. He was playing for Wasps against Harlequins and within six weeks he appeared for England B against the Emerging Wallabies. The next thing he knew he was on the England bench against Wales, but he was off again almost as soon as he was on.

And there it has rested, with Hopley always next in line. When the break came it was his B-team centre partner, Phil de Glanville, who replaced Tony Underwood while England were beating South Africa last month. All of which is why his Twickenham debut in the 111th University match today, when he wins his Blue for Cambridge against Oxford, is so critical in Hopley's career plans.

'If all goes well, it will clearly be to my advantage, though the days when this match propelled people into international rugby are long gone,' he said. 'But it still has a sense of occasion that can bring out the best in the players.' After the trouble he has had, Hopley is as relieved as he is pleased to be there.

No sooner had he gone up to Cambridge than he broke a hand in his first match, the town v gown meeting with Cambridge City. Out for six weeks, eventually he was fit enough to have a couple of comeback games before resuming his partnership with De Glanville for England B against the Springboks a month ago.

Neither suffered in the comparison with the esteemed South African Test pair Danie Gerber and Pieter Muller, but Hopley suffered a dead leg which absented him again until the Steele- Bodger's pre-University match a fortnight ago. This was not how it was supposed to be - but even so he reckons he has benefited from his intermittent experience.

Not least because after the years, flattering but tiring and tiresome, during which Wasps shuttled their old Harrovian from St Andrew's University to Sudbury, Cambridge has been a liberation. 'The longer time went on, the more arduous it became,' Hopley said.

'In a way it was a privilege to be doing it, but three days in London, three in Scotland and one day travelling were cutting into everything I wanted to do. It became a bind in the end, especially in my final year, and I began to lose interest. At times it was very difficult.'

Hopley completed his master's degree in theology in time for a late arrival on the England B tour of New Zealand last summer. Now 22, at Cambridge he is doing a two-year bachelor's course in education, though education, ie, teaching, is an unlikely eventuality. Like many university rugby predecessors, he would like to be something in the City.

Not much use for theology there, either, but then this is what Cambridge and winning a Blue can do for you and Hopley - all 6ft 2in and 15st of him - is putting the university to work in improving his rugby prospects as well. 'Some people raised eyebrows when I told them I was coming here,' he said.

'They thought of it as a backward step because playing for Wasps week-in week-out would be a better environment. But my argument was that there was more to life than rugby. My hope was, with the flair that's synonymous with Cambridge, I would expand my game and build my skills to a higher level than would have been possible in league rugby.

'I feel I've justified it. People saw me mainly as a powerful runner but now I hope the handling side has developed. Also, living two miles down the road instead of having to jump on a flight all the time is rather more sympathetic to the development of my game.'

This, it should be emphasised, is not concerned solely with personal advancement. 'Club rugby can never be like this, the intense focus on rugby building towards the Twickenham match, the intensity of the training and the development of team spirit. I'm sure postgraduates like myself have something to offer at Cambridge but we learn a lot and get an immense amount out of it.'

If they can keep fit, that is. Hopley's England challenge has been consistently interrupted over the past two years. The end of the 1990-91 season was an early write- off but he had recovered for England's brief tour of Australia and Fiji that summer, scoring tries in two of his three appearances.

Last season was worse. A sprung shoulder playing for London in a divisional match in October cost him six weeks, a subsequent ankle injury eight weeks and what he describes as 'a freak accident with a picture-frame' another three. Thereafter five uninterrupted weeks with Wasps was a rare luxury, but then he gave up because of his impending exams at St Andrew's.

Hopley's belated arrival in New Zealand put him further out of sorts but there was never much doubt that he and De Glanville would resume their association and both, unlike some others, returned from the tour with enhanced credit.

For De Glanville the waiting ended, however temporarily, in the South African Test; for Hopley it goes on.

'I've spoken to Phil about it a couple of times and we were resigned to the fact the you just had to wait. His time has come and I hope mine will, too. This is my first time to play at Twickenham but I sincerely hope it will the first of many times I tread that patch of turf.'

(Photograph omitted)