Matt Stevens and Lee Mears: Coffee and sympathy all round in ballad of the sad café

As Bath's forward adapts to life outside rugby he finds his business with former team-mate Mears and Brazilian Jujitsu are proving good props in rehabilitation. Hugh Godwin speaks to Matt Stevens and Lee Mears
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The Independent Online

A small blackboard on the wall of the Jika Jika coffee bar in Bath bears a quote from Vincent van Gogh: "I have tried to show the café as a place where one can go mad." Matt Stevens, co-owner of the bar and the man who wields the chalk around here, chuckles and says: "And there you go, it's sending me mad. That's nice and easy for you to write. I am so easy to write."

Maybe, maybe not. The quotation is not quite right – when describing his seminal work The Night Café, Van Gogh wrote: "I wanted to express the idea that the café is a place where one could ruin oneself, run mad or commit a crime" – and nor is Stevens. He is not easy to write. Some see the South African-born prop forward currently eight months into a two-year ban from rugby for taking cocaine as the devil incarnate; others view him as a decent bloke getting back on his feet and into this coffee-flogging business. "He's looking good, isn't he?" says Lee Mears, Stevens's co-owner of the café and one-time team-mate for Bath and England. Which is another view, and one difficult to deny as Stevens sits near us, smiling, fresh-faced, fit and about nine kilos lighter than his old rugby-playing weight.

Removed from the sport in which he had won 32 caps for his adopted country (in addition to playing, he is banned from training at any rugby club), Stevens has taken up Brazilian Jujitsu. It comes under the umbrella of mixed martial arts; a game of grappling and cunning which is the basis of the increasingly popular cage-fighting. Stevens, a graduate in politics, has been a quick learner.

"I probably don't run as much as before but I do a huge amount of cardio-vascular work," he says. "Brazilian Jujitsu is incredibly good for you – flexibility wise, for cardio-vascular, strength... it's been a revelation to me. I've sparred a lot and will be having proper bouts soon."

His neck and torso are slimmer now he is out of rugby's weight-training routine but he remains physically strong and immensely competitive. And what about the other effects of coming off cocaine? "I am dealing with it. You're thrown into a very surreal period for a couple of months. Then you're caught in limbo because you're between jobs, completely out of your comfort zone. And then you get better at making do. I've had to go to counselling once a week and it's a difficult world to get into and come out of. If people say it's easy to finish, they're lying. I can say it's been pretty difficult."

A happy, chatty crowd is milling around Jika Jika (a Zulu phrase for twisting or turning), including young kids and a few faces from the Bath team plus Joe Worsley, the Wasps and England flanker.

Mears, the hooker who could not be more content with his rugby after starting regularly for England last season and earning a Test place for the Lions in the summer, says: "Opening this place has been a good thing for Matt, to have people dropping in. He was very open about what happened and people respected that. He'll be 28 [when the ban ends in January 2011] and for a prop forward that's a ripe age. It will probably give him a new drive."

Stevens is indeed intent on starting his rugby career again in due course and he has had "interest" from clubs keen to sign him when he returns, though he denies reports of an agreement already with Wasps. He puts in "50 hours a week" at Jika Jika, and he has also been working for a logistics company, sitting in on meetings, helping with client hospitality.

"I've watched two live rugby games since my ban. One was the first Lions Test in South Africa, and the other was last weekend at Bath, a pre-season game. It was awkward and difficult and heart-rending to watch – and I probably won't do it again. But it also showed me how much I want to play again, and be healthy when I do it. Ultimately my goal is to come back and play at the highest level, and that's what I've got to focus on. I'd be lying if I said I didn't doubt that on a couple of occasions but I don't think I could go on without giving it one more go. There's not really anything in my way except not having played for a couple of years, and I've been out before for a year with a shoulder injury. It's probably good for my body."

These are positive sentiments, and they fit the unbeatably beatific scene here in the morning sunshine in Bath's Georgian city centre, between the Abbey and the Roman Baths and the Royal Crescent. The cappuccino comes with a heart traced on its creamy surface. But then there is the other Bath, the one which Van Gogh, who was gradually succumbing to the malign effects of absinthe and syphilis when he painted The Night Café, might have identified with. The one where the city's professional rugby players interspersed matches with too many drinks, the occasional punch-up and, according to gossip in some cases and urine-tested fact in Stevens's, the taking of drugs. When the RFU disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, suspended Michael Lipman, Alex Crockett and Andy Higgins for failing to submit to drugs tests ordered by the club after an end-of-season party last May, he wrote: "The management of the club had been concerned for some time about unspecified rumours."

That other Bath, insists Mears, is as much history as the Abbey and the Romans. "We have drawn a line under it and moved on," he says. "We've got a few new players and you have to be fair to them, they don't want to be tarred with the same brush. You have to be hard on each other and that's where we're going.

"The situation we got to stemmed from where you let a couple of things slide, a couple of boys get away with little things – even as trivial as wearing the wrong kit to training or turning up late – and people think 'I'm not in trouble for that' and it slides. Senior players are normally there to govern standards, but I was away with England and not around as much as I'd like to be, and Danny Grewcock was injured. Some other senior players went different ways.

"Bath is such a small town, and after a big win you will all go out and generally stick together. Unfortunately last year, rather than do it all together, we'd split. Some groups stayed out later. Going out and getting drunk on a Saturday night is probably not what a professional rugby player should be doing."

Not least because that can lead on to other things? "Yeah, if your inhibitions are low and you're drunk, maybe that's how it works. I don't know. I'm a non-drinker myself – I'm allergic to beer and lager.

"I think it [the drugs issue] surprised quite a lot of people. I was very shocked and most of the boys were. When it happened to Matt, it opened our eyes. And to find out that there were accusations still out there after he'd been done, well, it was disappointing."

Lipman, Crockett, Higgins and Justin Harrison have gone. A senior players' group has been set up, consisting of David Barnes, Grewcock, David Flatman, Joe Maddock and Stuart Hooper. On the field, they will lead the fight in today's Premiership opener at fierce rivals Gloucester. Off it, Mears says: "They're there to sort out the day-to-day things. If a player has a concern about a colleague, the intention is they are more likely to bring it up now."

There is a debate in rugby over the mandatory two-year suspension for cocaine "in competition", or during the season. The regulations are instructive. "Cocaine damages the nervous, respiratory and circulatory systems," they say, "and its use can lead to addiction, dependency, anxiety and psychotic disorders. It is abused in sport both for its properties as a stimulant and for the psychological effects which can 'permit' enhanced short-term extreme physical activity".

Stevens says: "It definitely should be a banned substance because it's illegal and it's destructive and it ruins a lot of people's lives, on the way to getting to you. However, there should be a differentiation between performance-enhancing and recreational, and I don't mean 'recreational' to give it a nice term, just as a distinction. People who get caught should be counselled. There are reasons why they do it."

Neither of these bright, approachable men views rugby as institutionally rotten, yet change is inevitable. "In clubhouses in years gone by, people might have laughed and said 'we got this guy off the field with a bit of ketchup on a sponge'," says Mears, referring to the Harlequins fake-blood incident. "Now the game's professional, with prize money and TV contracts, these things are not allowed. The game's learning as we go along."

Stevens is more forthright. "All the bad press rugby is getting, people talking about the morality of certain situations, I think it's crap," he says. "We're living in a world where people make mistakes. There's a lot of money in professional sport, a lot of pressure to win. Yes, sometimes people are going to cross that boundary. But rugby is definitely a sport where camaraderie and support have never dwindled. The support for me has far outweighed the few people that have been negative."

He rails against a newspaper columnist who derided rugby as class-ridden and falsely proud of a gentlemanly code. "We never have," says Stevens. "Never bloody have. Bullshit. In life all you can be is good to people and give them respect, and that's all you can ask from anyone else. And hold your hand up when you make a mistake."

Lives less ordinary

Mears, 30, played for home town side Torquay Athletic before he signed for Bath in 1997. Stevens, 26, from Durban in South Africa, played for the Junior Springboks before he joined Bath in September 2002.

Stevens made his England debut against the All Blacks in 2004; Mears a year later against Samoa. They have 32 and 34 caps respectively and both have toured with the British & Irish Lions – Stevens in 2005 and Mears this year when he started the First Test against South Africa, watched by Stevens, in Durban.

The pair considered several different money-making ideas, including a "Rick Stein-style" fish restaurant, until hitting on the idea for Jika Jika for "connoisseurs of coffee" when they visited the 'Underground' café in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Stevens, an accomplished opera singer, became an ambassador for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children charity and met Nelson Mandela after reaching the final of TV show 'The X Factor: Battle of the Stars' in June 2006. He impressed judges Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne with renditions of 'Mack the Knife' and 'New York, New York', and held off Radio One DJ Chris Moyles to finish second to the 'Eastenders' actress Lucy Benjamin.

In December 2008, Stevens tested positive for cocaine after a Bath match against Glasgow on a Sunday, and admitted having taken the drug the previous Thursday. The disciplinary panel said his admission of guilt was "delivered with striking sincerity and obvious contrition". He quit Bath and has since been followed out of The Rec by Justin Harrison (retired), Andy Higgins (suspended and retired) and the suspended Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett.

Hugh Godwin