Matt Stevens, persona non grata for the last season and a half after testing positive for cocaine and scheduled to remain among rugby's untouchables for another five months, will have an awful lot of ground to make up when he finally resurfaces at Saracens early in 2011. Yet it is not out of the question that he will complete the catching-up process sufficiently quickly to resume international duty with England at the World Cup later next year, especially if his new employers play him on the loosehead side of the scrum.
Yesterday, the Saracens hierarchy indicated they were ready to do just that. Stevens, who left Bath in disgrace after confessing to his addiction in a tearful television interview, has played the vast majority of his professional rugby as a tighthead specialist, but good judges have long felt that his wide-roaming, multi-faceted style lends itself more naturally to the less demanding of the front-line scrummaging positions. As there is no better footballing prop in the sport, the idea of him escaping the darkened recesses of the set-piece earlier rather than later is of obvious appeal.
England are well blessed with tighthead props at present, thanks to the steady progress made by David Wilson of Bath and the rapid emergence of Dan Cole of Leicester as a potential world-beater. Over on the loosehead, things are more Old Mother Hubbardish. Tim Payne of Wasps is not everyone's cup of tea as an international forward, while two younger men – Jon Golding of Newcastle and Matt Mullan of Worcester – are untested. Andrew Sheridan, accomplished enough for the Lions on a good day but scarcely visible on a bad one, is working his way back to fitness after a long injury break, and no one quite knows what to expect from him when the newly-branded Aviva Premiership begins a week today.
"We've seen Matt socially, but he can't train with us until his suspension is completed and because of that, it's not an easy situation," said Brendan Venter, the director of rugby at Saracens, during yesterday's tournament launch at Twickenham. "However, I'm convinced that once he is able to play a full part, the integration will be straightforward. He can operate on either side of the scrum, and props who can do that at international level are unbelievably valuable. We'll give him game time in both positions." Martin Johnson, the England manager, took as dim a view as anyone of Stevens's drug-taking, but even so, this must have been music to his ears.
Steve Borthwick, ruthlessly dumped from England's senior squad after a run of 17 games as captain, knows Stevens as well as anyone – the two men developed a close friendship during their time together at Bath – and confidently expects him to resume his Test career. "He's a phenomenal player," said the lock, now preparing for his third season at Saracens. "He offers a rare combination of strength, mobility and speed. I don't know what's in the England selectors' minds, but at his very best, Matt is absolutely world-class."Reuse content