Saracens prop faces a challenge to make the Lions front row but the shock pick is not daunted

Evening Standard

Matt Stevens laughs at the idea his selection for the Lions was due to Warren Gatland needing the prop to bring a club feel to the squad in Australia.

As we meet at the Saracens training ground, the 30-year-old, who was runner-up in the The X Factor: Battle of the Stars in 2006, says: “I like the social activities [of the tour] but it’s more about enjoying each other’s company.

“I like singing with the guitar. I’m sure, on a seven-week tour, we’ll have some downtime and, if the chance comes, I’ll have a guitar in hand and do some singing — Don McLean’s American Pie. I particularly like Counting Crows, they do some great numbers for the back of the bus.”

Stevens’s presence on the tour bus was, of course, the great Gatland selection surprise, even to Stevens himself. Except, in his case, the shock came when his mobile rang four weeks before the announcement. It was the head coach asking about his availability.

“That call came out of the blue. I was surprised because you’re not on the radar and you’ve opted out of international rugby.”

Stevens quit the England set-up last year as he could not commit himself until the 2015 World Cup. But he quickly adds: “I wasn’t surprised in terms of form. I’ve been playing well.” So well that Stevens, who is unusual in English rugby as a prop who can play on both sides of the scrum, dismisses the idea he will go on tour as back-up to tight-heads Adam Jones and Dan Cole.

“No, of course I don’t see myself like that. I’m a competitive player. I play against these guys quite a lot in the Heineken Cup and the Premiership. I’m at the same level. At the end of the day, it comes down to performance and selection and, when you get that chance, you’ve got to take it.”

Stevens did not get the chance to play in a Test on Clive Woodward’s 2005 tour of New Zealand. But, despite that and the Lions losing 3-0, he remains a fan of this most unique of sporting tours.

“It was a difficult tour in that we didn’t do very well but, as anyone who’s gone on a Lions tour will tell you, it was an incredible experience. It is magical, something that you never forget.

“You bond between England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The different groups, characters, ideologies inter-mingle quite well and everyone balances out. I was a young man, 24. I was around my heroes, the likes of Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll. I had an amazing experience. I was honoured and grateful to be on that tour.”

Stevens is one of nine English players in a squad dominated by the Welsh. He was not surprised when Gatland told Standard Sport that selecting too many English players can be a problem.

The head coach said: “[They are] not always the most popular with other countries because of the history. People like having a pop at them.”

Stevens says: “I definitely accept that. You get that tag attached to you. Colonialism is still kind of biting the English in the a**e. I don’t really know why it is any more but it’s there. The history is there.”

This season Stevens and his Saracens team-mates created their own piece of history, finishing the season top of the Premiership for the first time. However, they fell short in their quest to win the title, losing to Northampton in the semi-final on Sunday and that came a fortnight after defeat by Toulon in the last four of the Heineken Cup.

Despite these disappointments, Stevens believes Saracens have hit new heights this season, describing some of their rugby as “awesome”.

However, Stevens is well aware that: “In sport, as in life, no one remembers second best. But no matter how you look at it, we’ve had a successful season. And we had probably our best Heineken Cup as a squad so far.”

As for the Toulon defeat, he argues: “We won the collisions and created more chances than Toulon did. If you look at the stats, we were better in a lot of areas. But they took their chances, undoubtedly had the run of play.”

Such talk in the face of defeats may suggest Stevens has been delving into the section of the coaching manual marked ‘how to remain an optimist no matter what’. But then he knows what it is to come back from the depths of despair and, for Saracens, he has a special bond going beyond the normal player-club relationship.

It was Saracens who brought him back to the game after he received a two-year ban for taking cocaine in 2009 while playing for Bath. There was talk he might retire and many still feel he should have done.

But Stevens says: “I did a two-year ban and I felt I was properly recovered. I came back and I’m enjoying my rugby now and that’s what’s important.”

Such is his gratitude that he says with genuine emotion: “Sarries are a proper family. They’ve got the balance right. If you look at how we treat our players, our staff, we care about the entirety of what we do, from the social side of things to the community, to the rugby, to the corporate. We’re a fully functioning entity.”

This entity also carries a heavy South African influence which for Stevens, born in Durban where he learned the game, has deepened the bond. He may qualify for England through his parents but he can never resist the call of the land of his birth. So the thesis for his degree from Bath University was on affirmative action in Springbok rugby, a subject on which he disagrees with Kevin Pietersen.

The England batsmen left the country of his birth because he did not like the quota system in cricket. But, says Stevens: “It’s played out quite well in South African rugby. I looked at the evidence and I just thought that an initial period of affirmative action was something that was needed. I said to Jon Smith [former Springbok captain] the other day, ‘It’s great to see the amount of black rugby players coming through now because they should be there’. That’s obviously affirmative action.”

Saying this he is almost overcome with emotion as he recalls meeting Nelson Mandela. “It was just surreal. We spoke with him for 10 or 15 minutes. The whole time he held my hand. It was an amazing experience.”

Despite all its special qualities, the Lions tour cannot match that. But Stevens says that since becoming the father of twins, who are now two and a half, nothing matches the fulfilment that home brings. “My two kids and wife give me such happiness that really rugby comes second place to them.”


Share |



Latest Tweets

Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo