Saracens lead race as Stevens plans return

Interest heats up for Bath prop who still has to serve a year of ban for cocaine use
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The Independent Online

Matt Stevens, the lost cornerstone of the England pack, has not yet reached the mid-point of his two-year ban for cocaine abuse, but the competition for his services from next February is gathering intensity by the day. Bath want the naturalised South African to return to the Recreation Ground the moment his suspension is over while Wasps have openly declared an interest in luring him to London, but both could be blind-sided by Saracens, now seen by some of Stevens's closest colleagues as the player's most likely destination.

Edward Griffiths, the Saracens chief executive, would shed no light on the matter yesterday. "I can't comment about transfer speculation," he said. However, there is a good deal of talk at the Rec about Stevens cutting his ties with the West Country scene and heading east up the M4, and the Sarries option has a clear logic to it. For one thing, the club has strong South African links, from Griffiths himself to a significant proportion of the playing squad, via the director of rugby, Brendan Venter, who won a World Cup winner's medal with the Springboks. For another, Saracens have considerably more money behind them than Wasps.

More importantly from the Watford-based club's point of view, Stevens is precisely the kind of player who might iron out some worrying scrummaging issues – issues that will become more pressing as Carlos Nieto, the current senior hand on the tight-head side of the scrum, advances in years. Nieto is nearing his 34th birthday and is unlikely to continue much beyond the end of next season, if he gets that far.

England are missing Stevens, who would have made the British and Irish Lions tour of his homeland last summer had he not tested positive for cocaine after a Heineken Cup match in Scotland a little over a year ago. Tight-head options are few and far between as Martin Johnson, the national manager, prepares to take his squad to Portugal for a week's training ahead of the Six Nations Championship, which begins with a match against Wales at Twickenham a fortnight tomorrow.

David Wilson, who succeeded Stevens in the Bath front row and started the Test against Australia in November, is the favourite to face Wales, but England need more than one No 3. Duncan Bell, another Bath prop, was among those omitted when Johnson named his senior squad last week, while the 36-year-old Leicester forward Julian White has played only half an hour of rugby since twanging a hamstring last October. White's understudy at Welford Road, the uncapped Dan Cole, is the form tight-head operator in the country, but has yet to be promoted from the second-string Saxons party.

On the other side of the scrum, Andrew Sheridan's serious shoulder problems will prevent him playing in the Six Nations, yet he is still in the squad. Tim Payne of Wasps is fit, but out of form, while the most potent of the Saxons loose-head specialists, Alex Corbisiero of London Irish, has been struggling with injury.

It is not yet clear whether Johnson will clarify the situation surrounding the captaincy over the next 48 hours or so. Steve Borthwick, the Saracens lock who has supped from the poisoned chalice since the middle of 2008, is under attack from many quarters, despite producing his best performance in an England shirt against New Zealand last time. The Leicester flanker Lewis Moody and the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter have been touted as alternative candidates, but as Borthwick runs the England line-out – a potential weak point against Wales in the absence of the injured Tom Croft – any early change might come to be seen as reckless in the extreme.

Tonight, the final round of the Heineken Cup pool stage begins with Northampton's thankless trip to Munster, who have lost only once in Limerick since the tournament was launched in 1995. If the Midlanders take a point, they will kill off a group of outside bets for the knockout stage – Sale, Cardiff Blues, Scarlets and Ulster – while giving themselves a decent chance of progressing.

* Wasps face a nervous wait to find out if they will be top seeds in the Amlin Challenge Cup following a 19-17 defeat at Racing Metro. A last-minute penalty for Racing means the door is open for Irish province Connacht to finish as top seed with a win at Olympus Rugby in Madrid tomorrow.

32

Number of England appearances made by Matt Stevens since 2004 – 16 coming as starts.

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