Matt Stevens has ditched the headgear and thrown away the white bootlaces he has used since his early teens. "No more superstitions, no more crutches," he announced, decisively. If, as widely expected, he resumes his England career against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday– his last international appearance was against the All Blacks in the autumn of 2008, a month or so before the positive test for cocaine abuse that earned him a two-year ban from the sport – he will take the field as a new man: more grounded, better balanced, infinitely happier.
He has not lost a game – not one, of any kind – since he returned to top-level activity with Saracens midway through last season and helped them to a first Premiership title, but this is not what makes him feel good about himself. "I know what it is to play for England, I understand the honour and the privilege and I want to be part of the World Cup squad," said the South African-born prop. "Given all the circumstances surrounding my comeback, there would be so much to celebrate. But I'm a father now and that puts things in perspective. The World Cup is important, but nowhere near as important as my family."
Stevens is one of seven props still under consideration for next month's tournament, at least two of whom – quite possibly three – will be disappointed, and while his ability to play on both sides of the scrum gives him an obvious advantage, he is fully aware that he is in the thick of a serious scrap for places. "There's been an awful lot of live scrummaging during training and while we're not trying to injure or score egotistical points off each other, we all pretty desperate to be in the final 30," he said. A strong performance this weekend will help no end.
Martin Johnson, the manager, must be sorely tempted to give his two uncapped backs, the Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples and the Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, a run against the Welsh. Both men have received glowing mentions in dispatches recently, so there seems little point delaying their introduction to the Test environment. The London Irish full-back Delon Armitage is another in need of a start, having spent more time explaining his behaviour to members of Rugby Football Union disciplinary panels than asking questions of opponents just lately.
Lewis Moody, fit after a prolonged bout of knee trouble, can expect to be named on the open-side flank and resume the captaincy. Johnson may also see some virtue in picking the untried Saracens lock Mouritz Botha in the match-day 22, and giving James Haskell some activity in the No 8 position.Reuse content