England call up White as Stevens faces long ban

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson, the England manager, has called the 35-year-old Leicester front-row forward Julian White into his party for the Six Nations Championship as the shadows of the Matt Stevens drugs affair lengthen across the union game at both club and Test levels. White marginalised himself by withdrawing from the elite squad shortly before the 2007 World Cup, apparently unwilling to travel as the third of three tight-head props. Now that Stevens, one of those ahead of him in the pecking order, is preparing himself for a lengthy suspension, the hard-scrummaging Devonian has every chance of resuming his international career.

Any hope Stevens may have had of escaping the full wrath of his employers at Bath evaporated yesterday when Bob Calleja, the chief executive at the Recreation Ground, painted a stern picture of the management's displeasure at their player's self-confessed use of cocaine. "This week should have been about the anticipation of a classic winner-take-all Heineken Cup match between Toulouse and ourselves," he said. "Instead, the headlines have been dominated by Matt Stevens. We all feel let down. This is a very serious matter: the club does not, and will not, condone the use of illegal recreational or performance-enhancing drugs by any of its employees."

Stevens, who admitted to regular and serious drug misuse during a television interview on Tuesday evening, is currently suspended from all rugby and will stay suspended until a disciplinary tribunal is convened to hear his case. His ban could easily last two years, and anything of that magnitude would inevitably threaten his future as a Bath player. Indeed, speculation was rife in the city last night that he had played his last game for the club.

Not that his fellow first-teamers were ready to turn their backs. Michael Lipman, the Bath captain, said Stevens could count on receiving all the support he needed from the squad, adding: "We're here for him 100 per cent. Over the last 24 hours he has shown great depths of courage and character. He's a dear friend and I'm sorry to see him as he is at the moment. We'll help him get through it."

Confidently expected to travel to South Africa this summer for a second tour of duty with the British and Irish Lions – he was part of Sir Clive Woodward's unsuccessful squad in New Zealand in 2005 – Stevens has wasted that opportunity as surely as he has spurned the chance to revive England's fortunes in the Six Nations, which begins next month. Rob Howley, the Wales attack coach who will be among the Lions' back-room staff, declared himself deeply saddened by the news.

"I don't know Matt very well, but he's a great talent," said the former scrum-half. "He had a responsibility as a player; unfortunately, the social side of drugs and his celebrity got in the way. It shows you have to be mindful of the pitfalls that celebrity status brings. You can't support people 24/7. Professional players are looked after, with management trying to put in place everything they can while in camp. But there will be a time when those players go back home, and then they have a responsibility to themselves, the squad, the management and their families."

Steve Meehan, the Bath coach, will play Duncan Bell, another England international, on the tight head of the scrum against Toulouse on Sunday. "We've had better days and it's been difficult," he said, "but life is full of all sorts of experiences and I believe the players will be galvanised by this."

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