Doubts crowd in on Thomas as decision day draws near

Castaignede hopes for the best yet fears the worst
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As you read this, run your hand down the back of your leg, towards the heel. That thick, firm tendon connecting the calf muscle with the foot is the Achilles. Firm is good. Rock-hard, and colourfully bruised, as in the case of Thomas Castaignède's left Achilles tendon, is not so good.

A couple of livid, vertical scars identify the area where, four times since the Frenchman injured the tendon 14 months ago, surgeons have cut into his ankle and sought to save his career. No one, least of all Castaignède himself, can yet be certain if they have succeeded.

The latest plaster cast, from foot to knee, has only just come off, and the 26-year-old fly-half bears a noticeable limp as he wanders around the Saracens clubhouse after a month away.

Castaignède first arrived here in the summer of 2000, keen to add further flourishes to a canvas already illuminated by his individualistic performances for Toulouse, Castres and France. A lot has happened, yet nothing at all, since the first weekend in November 2000, when Castaignède collapsed in the warm-up for what would have been his 36th Test for France, against Australia in Paris.

"It was as if I'd been shot," he recalls. "I knew straight away what it was but I could not believe it." Castaignède had suffered from pain in the tendon since the start of that fateful season, but the circumstances surrounding the injury became a matter of dispute between Saracens and the French Rugby Federation.

France cleared Castaignède to play following an MRI scan before the game, and Saracens' owner, Nigel Wray, is still seeking compensation of more than £250,000 in wages paid during the resulting lay-off.

The argument may finally be resolved when the club travel to France for a European Shield match next Saturday. "I am meeting with the French Federation when we are in Bordeaux," said Wray, who was astonished to be told that, while the Rugby Football Union in England covers players for long-term injury as soon as they join the squad, the French are only insured during matches. "If we go to the lawyers everybody loses. I believe we are entitled to 100 per cent compensation, but I suspect there will be a compromise."

What is certain is that Castaignède will not be playing next weekend – current estimates of his comeback vary between April and goodness knows when. Complications set in last August when, with the tendon healing nicely, he began running again only for a new problem to appear: an injury to the tendon insertion further down the heel.

The discovery that 10 months of recovery had counted for nothing was a crushing blow. Faced with at least another six months out of action, Castaignède offered to cancel his Saracens contract, in effect handing Wray his resignation. Wray turned it down, and instead proposed a new four-year contract. But that is contingent on Castaignède getting fit, and Saracens cannot wait forever.

"I am 99 per cent certain that I'll be back," Castaignède said, "but there is a very small chance that I won't. I really want to stay at Saracens, and they want me to stay. But I have to think of my family [he has a seven-month-old daughter, Lila]. In April, if nothing is done about the future, I may have to make a decision."

Castaignède has faith in his Paris-based surgeon, Professor Gérard Saillant, and smiles as he recalls watching Champions' League football with a fellow patient at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital, Michael Schumacher. "He was cheering for Bayern Munich, me for Arsenal."

But there has also been frustration in breakdowns of Anglo-French communication, between doctors on different sides of the Channel with differing techniques. "I was going to the hospital for one day, and staying for a month," Castaignède said. "Francois Pienaar [Saracens' chief executive] was asking why. The hardest thing is to explain what you've got, when you don't even know yourself."

Just as Castaignède plays rugby off the cuff – it is difficult here to resist the past tense "played" – so his words tumble out with unguarded informality. "I understand Saracens' position. Nigel Wray is a really nice man, but this is a business. If they can't wait, but I continue playing, I think I will stay in England, just to show them I will be back. I don't they'd like to see me playing for Leicester or Gloucester, against Saracens.

"I don't think the tendon will be a problem, but I haven't been running for a long time. I need to do the work to make the rehabilitation. I feel now like I never played rugby. Everything will be new again."

Castaignède has had his fill of the waiting, the operations, the flights between London, Paris and his home in Toulouse, the weeks of staring at hospital ceilings. Shimmering memories of his destruction of Wales at Wembley in 1998 are fast receding.

"The biggest victory will be to be back on the pitch and I will show the people who believe in me that they were right. Before, when I was playing, everything was made for me and it was normal. Now maybe you learn the reality, that every moment you can pass on the pitch is a special moment. I'm missing it a lot. When you've had the life like I had in the past, I can tell you, you don't want to be in hospital." Plus ça change, my foot.