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Damian Hopley looks back with pride after ending his stint as Rugby Players Association chief

At lunchtime a week last Friday, Damian Hopley could finally relax.

The press release confirming his departure as Rugby Players Association chief executive had been sent out and marked the end of an era.

Hopley, 52, won three caps for England and was a member of his country’s 1995 World Cup squad in South Africa before injury forced him to retire at the age of just 27.

He promptly set up the RPA in 1998 and at a time when rugby was coming to terms with its status as a professional sport. At that point, the sport was still amateur in many ways.

Damian Hopley is stepping down as chief of the Rugby Players Association after 24 years

A critic might say it still is.

‘I’ve given 24 years of service – a lifetime really – to the organization and there is a piece of my heart that will always be at the RPA,’ Hopley told sportsmail.

‘Most people thought I was mad when I first set it up. More than two decades on, it’s still going. I guess that is the legacy for me. It’s the right time to move on.

‘As a student watching “101 best tries” at St Andrews University, I looked at all the greats of rugby like Sir Gareth Edwards and always felt like I wanted to give something incredible to the game.

‘Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that on the field. The fact I was inspired to do something on the back of my injury and stuck at it means I can look back with pride on what we achieved.

‘We’ve negotiated millions of pounds to be invested into player welfare and development and I’d go as far to say that it has helped save a number of lives – that’s the most extraordinary thing.

‘I’ve got some very, very special memories.

Hopley won three England caps in his career and was a member of the 1995 World Cup squad

Hopley won three England caps in his career and was a member of the 1995 World Cup squad

But when injury forced him to retire at the age of 27, he went about setting up the RPA

But when injury forced him to retire at the age of 27, he went about setting up the RPA

Hopley says he has 'special memories' of working for the RPA as he prepares to bow out

Hopley says he has ‘special memories’ of working for the RPA as he prepares to bow out

‘It’s a cause that has always been so close to me given how the organization started. The All Black legacy is about leaving the game in a better place when you move on and I believe I’ve done that.’

As Hopley prepares to leave the organization he created, it is perhaps ironic that the needs of today’s rugby players are now greater than ever.

Covid-19 led to wage cuts across the board. The Premiership’s salary cap reduction has forced English clubs to tighten their squads and has left several players out of work.

Last month, former England center Luther Burrell revealed the toxic racism he suffered during his career. A complex legal case led by ex-players such as 2003 World Cup winner Steve Thompson on concussion and head injuries following their diagnoses of early onset dementia remains ongoing.

These are huge issues. They are not quick fixes.

‘I was appalled when I heard Luther’s comments, first and foremost not on a rugby level, but on a human level,’ Hopley added. ‘We had a meeting this month with Luther and his representatives from him, myself, and Bill Sweeney and Simon Massie-Taylor from the RFU and PRL respectively.

‘There is this terrible word that’s used in rugby and society – banter. It’s a word people use to hide things like racism and homophobia. There is just no place for it in our game.

However, the departing chief insists issues such as Luther Burrell's racism revelation mean there are still plenty of challenges for the sport to overcome

However, the departing chief insists issues such as Luther Burrell’s racism revelation mean there are still plenty of challenges for the sport to overcome

Steve Thompson and other ex-players being diagnosed with dementia is also a concern

Steve Thompson and other ex-players being diagnosed with dementia is also a concern

‘Luther’s bravery in speaking up has been extraordinary but he has also put his hand up to see how he can help. We want Luther to be an influence for good and change in this space.

‘The most important thing of all is that as a sport, rugby now has an opportunity to use this moment to address these challenges. Luther is a victim of some horrific language and treatment and we have to draw a line in the sand, change things, and move forward positively off the back of it.’

Hopley continued: ‘I think the inclusivity piece around Luther’s comments is very important.

‘Ugo Monye spoke recently about rugby’s drinking culture. There are so many strengths to rugby. ‘The French call it “the third half” and our sport’s social element is the most extraordinary thing. You don’t want to lose that. I’ll take some of the relationships I’ve built in rugby to my deathbed.

‘But society has changed and we do need to move with that in terms of social diversity and inclusion. ‘We are seeing change, but we do need to move quicker.’

Hopley cites the ‘Bloodgate’ scandal involving Harlequins in 2009 and England’s humiliating exit from their own World Cup six years later as two of the lowest moments in his time as RPA boss. But in three decades at the helm, there have undoubtedly been several highs too.

By creating the RPA and working so diligently for such a long period of time, Hopley has undoubtedly helped change English rugby for the better. The work is not done, however.

Hopley’s successor has a big job on his hands.

‘The rugby world has changed significantly in the last two to three years and not just because of Covid. We’ve seen new private equity investment come in,’ he said.

‘The politics in rugby is extraordinary. We’ve got to embed the voice of the players into how the game is run. We’ve been doing that for a very long time, but we’ve got a new Professional Game Agreement coming up in 2024. The players want to be signatories to that.

‘That’s what the best sports organizations in the world do. The players want to feel they are being listened to and that they are being fairly rewarded.

‘We’ve gone through issues with 25 per cent salary cuts and the reduction of the salary cap. In England we’ve got up to 70 players who are out of contract this year.

‘We are helping all of them either in picking up a job or transitioning to the real world. How do we make sure rugby can look after itself? That’s the challenge.

‘The physical and mental wellbeing of players as they leave the sport should be paramount to the game. We have to make sure players can look back on their careers and not only be grateful for what they’ve achieved, but also feel they were looked after.

‘At the moment, there is a bit of a cliff they just fall off.’

Hopley's unnamed successor at the RPA has an almighty job on their hands in the game

Hopley’s unnamed successor at the RPA has an almighty job on their hands in the game

England’s World Cup-winning hooker Thompson, former Wales flanker Alix Popham and others certainly fall into that category as they battle the early signs of dementia caused by repeated blows to the head while playing the game. This week, former Wales captain Ryan Jones revealed he too is suffering from serious brain injury problems as a result of his on-field career.

‘The situation with Steve, Alix and others on a human level is just terrible,’ Hopley said.

‘I don’t think rugby has ever hidden away from trying to look after players, but we now have more than 100 ex-players involved in a legal case against the sport. Clearly, that is huge for rugby.

‘The tragedy of that situation must be a catalyst for us to move forward.

‘We have to make sure we do everything we can to improve player welfare, like bringing in instrumented mouthguards.

‘The sport is investing. There is a lot of positive action going on. We always wanted to make England the best environment in the world to be a rugby player.

‘Things like the salary cap cuts and reductions in player salaries mean it probably isn’t. But that’s the undoubted ambition and we want to keep moving forward. Pre-Covid we were in a great space and salaries were very strong. But being a professional athlete is not only about how much you get paid.

‘It’s also about the environment you work in and helping with your transition out of the game. ‘We’ve made massive strides there, but there is a fragility about the sport that is really worrying.

But he's adamant that rugby's future is incredibly positive as he bids farewell to the association

But he’s adamant that rugby’s future is incredibly positive as he bids farewell to the association

‘Two or three clubs are staring down a financial blackhole. We’ve had private equity come into rugby, but it’s about sustainability. We want the sport to not only be financially stable, but growing.

‘We want the players to be able to maximize their earnings because they only have a short rugby career, but since I started the RPA it’s always been about sustainability.

‘We saw that in the late 1990’s. West Hartlepool, London Scottish, Hartlepool, Coventry – all of those great clubs went through financial difficulty.

‘I still think rugby is just scratching the surface of what it can achieve and maybe things need to change in how it’s run. The opportunity is there.

‘The future is incredibly positive but we first have to get through the existing economic challenges.’

Hopley won’t be part of rugby’s future, not immediately at least. He plans to take some time away from the game although he still feels he has a lot to offer.

But there can be no doubt he has contributed more than his fair share to the sport’s progress in the last 20 years. For that, rugby owes him a great deal of thanks.

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