Tom Shanklin is a changed man, and not only in the sense that two surgical invasions of his right knee have cut and scraped and reshaped the cartilage in that crucial joint. A month into his comeback for the Cardiff Blues after almost a year of rehabilitation, the Wales centre has, in his mid-twenties, learned the art of self-preservation.
"Because I've had a long lay-off I look at things differently. I'm more aware if I'm not feeling right. I'll speak to the coaches and take a step back, where in the past I might have played."
It does not quite give the lie to the recent player survey in England which reported that two-thirds of players had been coerced to play while injured, and Shanklin confirms there is peer pressure from all sides.
But he is glad that at Cardiff he has two coaches, Dai Young and Rob Howley, who are on his side. "They were players not so long ago and know that a lot of training can aggravate injuries. They want me able to play at 100 per cent at the weekends and I'm the same. When the team train twice a day, I only do one of those sessions to lower the impact on my knee. There are things that I can't do in weight training, but there are exercises to work around that."
Though it cannot be said with empirical accuracy, Shanklin appears to be a typical 26-year-old rugby professional in the UK in that he has had multiple injury problems. He made his senior debut as a teenager at London Welsh, and when he moved up a division to Saracens in the Premiership in 1999, his first season was disrupted by ankle and calf injuries.
In February 2001, he took a knock to his leg in training and a severe haematoma raised brief fears of amputation. In 2003, he joined the newly born Cardiff Blues and by April 2005 the wear and tear on his knee cartilage necessitated an operation. But the Lions tour of New Zealand was looming.
"I came back too quickly," says Shanklin, "but anyone in the same position would have done the same. After three games in New Zealand there was obviously something wrong, because I had the knee drained twice and it still swelled up."
He came home - wounded mentally, too, because Brian O'Driscoll's injury had opened a window of Test opportunity in the centres - and had a second operation to clear out loose cartilage and artificially create a layer of protective scar tissue.
What ought to have been the start to his 2005-06 season against Wasps precisely a year ago today was almost the end. "I wasn't running right, the knee felt sore and it wouldn't settle afterwards. It wasn't the rugby contact, it was the running: the impact my shin bone was having on my thigh bone. That's when I saw the doctors and they said it was something pretty serious." Shanklin was told his career might be over.
Reluctantly he made himself aware of the extent of the insurance payout. Professional players in Wales are covered by a package funded by the Welsh Rugby Union, with a flat £90,000 payable for a career-ending injury. If they are internationals there is a staged enhancement, dependent on age: £112,000 at age 29 or above, £187,000 at 26 to 29, £250,000 up to 25.
Richard Harry, chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Players' Association, says: "We have worked hard to provide a base level of cover, but I urge everyone to add to it. The players need to recognise the real risk the game has." The same message is given by the PRA in England, where the maximum payout for a career-ending injury is £120,000 to an England elite squad member in his twenties, falling on a sliding scale to £25,000 for a club player over 33. Yet there are scores of PRA members who have no top-up insurance.
Phil Newton, of football's sports rehabilitation centre at Lilleshall, bemoaned in these pages last week that no rugby players had used his centre's services - possibly on the basis of cost. But Shanklin says he has had good treatment. "Mark Bennett, the Wales fitness coach, has been like a personal trainer. And the Blues and Wales train where you can do rehab work."
Asked what he would do if not playing rugby, he makes it plain he will cross that Severn Bridge when it comes to it. "I did some part-time work for Brains' brewery," he says. "I would like to say it was as a taster, but it was more on the marketing side. That kept me busy so I didn't have time to sit around and think, 'What if?' "
Shanklin the Cardiff Blue is no shrinking violet. His game is noted for its aggression, for his full-on running and simple distribution. But he says a six-month season would make more sense, albeit that "nothing will happen until a lot of players break down". Surely Wales have been there, suffered from that, in their wretched defence of the Six Nations' Championship title last season, ruined by injuries.
With a much improved pre-season behind him it is a fresher, more hopeful Shanklin who is looking forward today to a first rematch with Saracens since he left, in the Anglo-Welsh Cup at Watford. The Blues, having beaten Wasps first time out, fancy a tilt at the trophy. "We got rid of a lot of the dead wood in the summer," says Shanklin. "People who turned up to training and didn't really care if we won or lost have been replaced with people who are keen or youngsters coming up from the academy. You want players who, if they're not picked, their heads aren't going to drop."
Players like Tom Shanklin, in other words. "I never want to get dropped," he says, adding: "I will be starting today. I'm the only fit centre we've got."
Comeback Men: Four who have faced the long road to recovery
Lawrence Dallaglio (Back row, Wasps and England)
Lions 2001 tour was a mistake; he carried a wounded knee which soon gave way and needed reconstruction. After nine months out, Dallaglio returned in March 2002 to rediscover form gradually and play every minute of England's 2003 World Cup campaign. Broke ankle with 2005 Lions, came back in October last year, had the plate removed during summer, playing first game this season today.
Richard Hill (Flanker, Saracens and England)
Endured six months' rehab after a reconstruction of left knee in October 2004 to make the 2005 Lions tour. Damaged ligaments in the same knee in First Test, and after 16 months out he hopes to be back in the next fortnight.
Jonny Wilkinson (Fly-half, Newcastle and England)
Where do you start? Wilkinson's worst lay-off was a spell of one match in 38 weeks following the 2003 World Cup, with injuries in neck and shoulder. Has suffered a catalogue of injuries since.
Phil Vickery (Prop, Wasps and England)
Mighty tighthead laid low since January this year after a third back operation. Moved in the summer from Gloucester, who wanted to change his wage structure, to Wasps, for whom he makes his debut against London Irish today.
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