Matt Stevens represents the future of English rugby. A player blessed with all the talents, he is constructed on the grandest of scales by the same firm that built the Great Pyramids and combines massive physical strength and a wide range of footballing skills with a depth of intelligence that makes many of his fellow front-row forwards seem like throwbacks to the Stone Age. Equally importantly, he is young enough to make a difference to the reigning world champions for a decade or more. Just one small problem. At 24 Stevens is on the list of long-term injured, and it remains to be seen whether the startling nature of his orthopaedic problem condemns him to life in the past tense.
Stevens, an optimistic sort with much to be optimistic about, trusts this worst-case scenario will not come to pass. The right shoulder that more or less fell apart during a Premiership match with London Irish at the Recreation Ground last February was pieced back together some three months ago; the arm has finally been released from its sling after six depressingly long weeks of immobility; and its owner is back in the gym, hurling weights in a skywards direction. If the specialists are right, the physiotherapists do their job and God remains in his heaven, it is possible that England's premier tight-head prop will return to the field in January, in good time for the World Cup in France a year from now. If, if, if. It is also possible that Stevens will hurt himself again the moment he hits a live scrum in training.
Like the overwhelming majority of professional rugby players, Stevens shows Seneca-like qualities of stoicism in the face of misfortune - one that has denied him the chance to mix it with the All Blacks on 5 November in front of a record 85,000 crowd at Twickenham, and prevent a much coveted first meeting with South Africa, the country of his birth, a fortnight later. He blithely reports that it takes himat least four days to shake off the effects of an average club match. Frighteningly, he also says: "I'm told the degree of impact a player in my position takes during the course of a Premiership game is equivalent to two car accidents." A pedant might point out that there are big car accidents and small ones, but all the same...
Since breaking into the top echelon three seasons ago, Stevens has witnessed enough injury carnage to make him ponder his own sanity. He has seen Phil Vickery, his World Cup-winning predecessor in the England front row, break down with serious back trouble for a second and third time (not to mention the busted eye socket and the broken arm that also inconvenienced the older man in the same period). He has watched his club colleague David Flatman recover from career-threatening injury, regain a semblance of match fitness, succumb again, then pull through once more. Flatman could, probably would, have been an England regular had he stayed fit, but that notion faded long ago. He is 26.
Under such circumstances, there is only one question to be asked. Is it really worth the hassle, this rugby lark? "I believe so," Stevens replies. "If I was in this position, suffering this degree of discomfort and frustration, at 31 or 32, I might be saying to myself: 'Mate, you've had a good stint. Count your lucky stars and get out now.' But I haven't had a good stint, have I? I'm too young to even contemplate the possibility of rugby passing me by.
"This is my first serious injury, the first time I've needed surgery as a consequence of playing the game. Does the future worry me? No. Is there even a hint of fear in the back of my mind that I won't beat this and return as a better, stronger player? No again. What this injury has driven home to me is how fortunate I am - what a fantastically lucky bastard I've been, right from the moment a schoolteacher first spotted me and thought to himself: 'This kid has something I can work on.' If I hadn't suffered as I have through all this, I wouldn't know what it feels like to miss rugby. Because I've been fortunate enough to experience the best of it, I'm like an addict. Basically, I need this fix. I have to have it."
The detail of Stevens' injury - the rotator cuff, the group of muscles and tendons that act to stabilise the shoulder, was stripped clean away - shows rugby union both at its most gruesomely medieval and at its most scientifically resourceful. It started with a common or garden scrum collapse during the London Irish game.
"It wasn't anything to do with me," the victim recalled. "The scrum went down on the other side, but I slipped and hurt my shoulder. I felt it go, but as far as I could tell it was pretty random. I stayed on, and I got through the match. How? On adrenalin, I suppose. That often happens when you pick up a knock."
He missed the Calcutta Cup match between England and Scotland at Murrayfield the following week, but declared himself fit to face Llanelli in the Powergen Cup semi-final in early March and played for his country against France in Paris eight days later. Why wouldn't he? He knew something was wrong, but had no idea of the scale of the problem. Like most of his peers, he thought nothing of carrying on until some doctor somewhere decided otherwise.
"I'm happy to accept, looking back on it now, that it wasn't a great idea to play the game in France," he admitted. "Undoubtedly, it made things worse. But it's easy to talk in retrospect, isn't it? I knew I had an injury, but I felt able to participate and wanted to participate. It was a Six Nations game, after all, and it's in the tradition of the game that you carry on regardless unless someone stops you. It was all down to me - my decision. I certainly wasn't forced to play. If that kind of thing ever happened in our game, it's long gone.
"As it turned out, there were genuine complications in diagnosing my problem. Because I have such strong shoulder muscles, the damage didn't affect me until it became really bad. The doctors couldn't actually tell what was wrong because nothing came up on the MRI scans. It was only when I had some ultrasound treatment that something showed up."
Two bouts of surgery later, he is finally on the mend. "I had arthroscopic surgery the first time, but because my bone density is so high, they couldn't get any tools in there to fix the trouble. The second operation was full-scale open surgery under general anaesthetic. They had to open up all the muscles and saw through the bone to get it done. It meant a much longer period out of the game - effectively, I've missed the last six months, and the frustration has been greater than I could ever have imagined - but I'm assured it will be better for me in the long run."
In common with many of his fellow professionals, Stevens has increasingly strong views on how rugby union should develop. He has no time whatsoever for the argument, which is growing in force, that the scrum should be restricted, or emasculated, or done away with - "I don't want to contribute to that debate, because it's complete rubbish," he said, with considerable feeling - but he does take the view that the domestic season should be shortened. "We play too much," he pronounced. "If we took five or six games out of the programme, it would make all the difference. It would be better for the players in terms of rest and recuperation, and that in turn would make the remaining matches more of a spectacle."
He also considers overtraining to be one of the heinous crimes of modern-day rugby. Prop forwards have been banging this drum since time immemorial - in the English game, it was not until the young Jason Leonard set new standards of fitness that the front-row troglodytes saw any point in training at all - but Stevens is more cutting-edge in his opinion. "We're beginning to cotton on to the fact that players' bodies have to be properly managed, not flogged into the ground day after day," he said. "The All Blacks have understood this for a long time. So have Wasps, here in England. Now, the rest of us are catching up, thank God."
It says much about the union game, professional these last 10 years but still in its infancy in many ways, that a 24-year-old forward can speak from painful experience about being "flogged into the ground". But rugby types grow up quickly these days. If a player is lucky, only his illusions are exposed and swept away. If he is not so lucky, his dreams go the same way. Ask David Flatman. Happily, Stevens still has his dreams, but he now understands how fragile and vulnerable they are.
Damaged goods: World Cup winners' toll
How England's World Cup-winners have fared since their 20-17 victory over Australia in the 2003 final in Sydney
INJURIES/GAMES SINCE FINAL*
JOSH LEWSEY 2 mths (shoulder); 2 wks (shoulder) 74
JASON ROBINSON 5 wks (thumb) 72
WILL GREENWOOD 6 mths (shoulder) (retired May 2006) 28
MIKE TINDALL 8 mths (foot); 3 mths (groin, shoulder) 50
BEN COHEN 3 wks (fractured cheekbone) 72
JONNY WILKINSON 9 mths (neck); 4 mths (bicep); 4 mths (leg); 2 wks (appendix); ongoing (leg) 32
MATT DAWSON 3 mths (ankle/shoulder); (ret May 06) 69
TREVOR WOODMAN 5 mths (back); (retired July 05) 13
STEVE THOMPSON 6 wks (calf); 6 wks (rib) 81
PHIL VICKERY 9 mths (back); 4 mths (back/arm); 10 wks (eye) 37
MARTIN JOHNSON 2 wks (back); (retired June 05) 37
BEN KAY 1 mth (shoulder) 73
RICHARD HILL 9 mths (knee); 4 wks (broken nose) 18
NEIL BACK None (retired Jun 2005) 38
LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO 2 wks (knee) 71
DORIAN WEST 1 wk (knee); (retired May 2004) 5
JASON LEONARD None (retired May 2004) 3
MARTIN CORRY 2 wks (hamstring) 73
LEWIS MOODY 10 mths (foot) 64
KYRAN BRACKEN since 2003 (back); (retired May 2006) 36
MIKE CATT 3 wks (back/hamstring) 54
IAIN BALSHAW 2 wks (calf); 2 mths (groin/thigh) 30
* Club and international matchesReuse content