Rest assured, Sheridan is ready to play

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The Independent Online

"I can see both sides," Sheridan says. "I am just keen to get back playing." It is five days before Sale kick off the Guinness Premiership at home to Newcastle, and Sheridan is unsure whether he will pull on his No 1 jersey for the first whistle. An issue which appears achingly simple - that top players should rest for 11 weeks in the close season - has proved to be anything but.

The Rugby Football Union on Friday took a belatedly aggressive stance and distributed a list of the number of matches played by England's 20 Lions tourists in the past year, and a date when each would be available again for a full club match. Only three of the 20 have served the rest period in time for the new season, and two of those - Danny Grewcock and Richard Hill - have done so by default through suspension and injury.

The RFU say Sheridan should not play a full match until 17 September, but could have 40 minutes against Newcastle if required. But Sale disagree. Their chairman, Brian Kennedy, has instructed his head coach, Philippe Saint-André, to select whoever he likes from the Lions tourists Sheridan, Charlie Hodgson, Mark Cueto, Andy Titterrell and (the currently injured) Jason Robinson. With the England coach, Andy Robinson, rumoured to have telephoned players individually to urge them to rest, Sheridan is in a position more invidious than any he is likely to encounter in the front row.

"Obviously the club is not very happy," he says. "They are arguing that their highest-paid players are not around for significant periods. On the other hand the RFU give quite a lot of money to every club, both through us being EPS players and in central funding [£2 million per club]."

The EPS, supposedly a joint effort between the clubs and Twickenham, has been a flawed panacea since it was dreamt up in March 2002 to define international release dates and the management of players' welfare.

The 11-week stand-down was a laudable attempt to do something about burnout, but essentially Sale's stance, supported by Leicester, is that they know best. Now the debate cited by Sir Clive Woodward as a major factor in his resignation as England head coach a year ago has landed on the doormat of his successor, Robinson, whose eight Tests in charge have brought four defeats. The new coach is under pressure to produce results when New Zealand, Australia and Samoa come to Twickenham in November, and is relying on emerging stars such as the 25-year-old Sheridan to get them.

"We've all got to work together," says Sheridan, who until he was sent to the sin-bin for a punch against the Maori in the Lions tour had given the All Black tighthead Carl Hayman a run for his money.

"To be honest, the club manages us pretty well. Philippe and [assistant coach] Kingsley [Jones] are keen on working us hard for a few weeks and then giving us four or five days off."

Yet the game's attritional risks were highlighted in midweek by the retirement at the age of 29 of Trevor Woodman, Sale's other international loosehead. And whatever the clubs say, perhaps the players need saving from themselves. Sheridan, a 6ft 5in behemoth whose bench-pressing feats are legendary, admits he played while injured at the tail end of last season. He hurt his ankle against Connacht on 24 April and needed a painkilling injection before appearing at Harlequins the following week. On 5 May a MRI scan diagnosed ruptured ligaments, but that did not stop him facing Pau in the European Challenge Cup final which Sale, third in the league, won.

Incredibly, it was not until Sheridan's final week away with the Lions - when the pain "got a bit much" - that it was found the initial scan had missed a fracture of the fibula further up the leg. "I'm 100 per cent fine now," Sheridan says. The bang on the eye he got in Edinburgh last weekend, which needed laser treatment to repair three tears to the retina, barely rates a mention.

"This will be my fourth season at prop and I enjoy it," Sheridan says. He joined the EPS in 2003 and made his England debut off the bench against Canada last autumn. Clearly, then, Andy Robinson is a fan? On that score, Sheridan is happy to be blunt. "I suppose that if he picks you, he rates you."