Matt Stevens: Bath's friendly giant seeks a permanent front-row seat

Today's Powergen Cup final gives prop Matt Stevens the chance to justify his Lions selection. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online

Matt Stevens was a mere 14-year-old, albeit an abnormally large 14-year-old, when the British and Irish Lions last won a Test series, back in 1997. In fact, he was present in person, wedged into a seat - two seats, in all probability - at King's Park in his native Durban, as Jeremy Guscott dropped the goal that brought the Springboks to their knees and sent a nation of rugby obsessives scurrying towards the clifftops like a colony of lemmings in mourning. Eight years on, the South African has become an Englishman earning a handsome living at Guscott's old club and about to embark on a Lions adventure of his own. A tale of the unexpected? Roald Dahl, eat your heart out.

Matt Stevens was a mere 14-year-old, albeit an abnormally large 14-year-old, when the British and Irish Lions last won a Test series, back in 1997. In fact, he was present in person, wedged into a seat - two seats, in all probability - at King's Park in his native Durban, as Jeremy Guscott dropped the goal that brought the Springboks to their knees and sent a nation of rugby obsessives scurrying towards the clifftops like a colony of lemmings in mourning. Eight years on, the South African has become an Englishman earning a handsome living at Guscott's old club and about to embark on a Lions adventure of his own. A tale of the unexpected? Roald Dahl, eat your heart out.

"Do I pinch myself when I think about the way things have turned out? Of course I do," he said this week as he forced his substantial front-rower's frame into an armchair in the public bar of the Recreation Ground in Bath. Peering down from the picture frames adorning the walls were the familiar faces of the Rec-reared Lions - Andy Robinson, Gareth Chilcott, Stuart Barnes, Ben Clarke, Guscott himself - and as if to reinforce the point, their names were engraved on the honours board hanging over Stevens' head. It was a good moment to talk history. After all, the Powergen Cup final was only 72 hours distant.

If selection for the Lions, an honour Stevens secured for himself on Monday when Sir Clive Woodward named his squad for the forthcoming tour of New Zealand, is the nearest thing the game in the British Isles has to a holy grail, the domestic knock-out cup is the cross all Bath players must bear. The West Countrymen triumphed at Twickenham on no fewer than 10 occasions between 1984 and 1996, and to this day they have never lost a final. Rightly or wrongly, the man in the street - or rather, the man in the Georgian crescent - considers the trophy to be his personal property, and while the tournament is now very much the third of three behind the Heineken Cup and the Zurich Premiership, the locals crave this particular piece of silverware as an Athenian might crave the Elgin Marbles.

Stevens knows all about the interweaving of pride and passion in his chosen sport, having been raised in one of the great citadels of the Springbok game and represented the country of his birth at Schools, Under-19 and Under-21 levels. And if the shores of the Indian Ocean are a world away from the banks of the River Avon, he is as sensitive to the longings of the Bath faithful as Matt Perry, Lee Mears or Duncan Bell, all of whom have roots in the area. Nevertheless, he does not buy the argument that Bath will be motivated by the deeds of yore when they take on Leeds this afternoon.

"We're all aware that we have a huge responsibility to the supporters," he said. "People like Mike Catt and John Mallett, who were a part of the squad during the glory days, were still in the side when I first arrived at Bath, and by listening to them and playing alongside them, I got an idea of the strength of the cup tradition here. And of course, I cherish that tradition. But this is a very different group of players from the old team and we feel we have a responsibility to ourselves, as well as to those who follow us. If we're able to draw something from the support, all well and good. But ultimately, we want to set our own standards."

When it comes to standards, the explosive and unusually flexible 22-year-old prop - loose-head, tight-head, any head you like - is raising the bar almost by the week. Having announced himself to the Recreation Ground regulars by depositing Abdel Benazzi, one of the more imposing figures in world rugby, in a shallow grave during an appearance off the bench against Saracens in the spring of 2003, he has sharpened every aspect of his game since, to the extent that at least one of this summer's Lions coaches can see him playing all three Tests against the All Blacks. That would be some achievement, given his apparent difficulties in New Zealand last summer.

Shortly before the first meeting with the silver-ferned brigade at rickety old Carisbrook, that hell-hole of a venue in downtown Dunedin, the aforementioned Chilcott saw his successor in the Bath and England front rows looking "as white as a sheet". This rather worried the great West Country rabble-rouser, an old-school prop who did not believe in showing signs of terminal petrification prior to a match.

"He's a good player, this Stevens," he said. "But is he tough enough? Does he have the nerve?" Although Stevens played 12 minutes of that match off the bench, thereby winning his first cap, and another 10 in Auckland the following week before retiring with a leg injury, he struggled to get involved on either occasion and Chilcott's questions remained unanswered. The youngster's aptitude for rugby at the very highest level was still up for discussion a few months later, when he found himself on the painful end of a shellacking from the ruthless French scrummager Olivier Milloud in a Heineken Cup match against Bourgoin.

"Matt spent the afternoon with his head up his arse, and there will be quite a pop when it emerges," pronounced Bath's wry and wrinkled head coach, John Connolly, at the time. "Milloud gave me a bit of a tuning," agreed Stevens during the week. "I'm the first to admit it."

But among the coaching fraternity, there was a broad consensus that a gem had been unearthed. Despite the pasting he took at the set piece, Stevens' performance in the loose that day had star quality stamped all over it, and when England turned to him once again at the mid-point of this year's Six Nations Championship, his contribution against Ireland at Lansdowne Road was as significant as that of any of his colleagues. In the space of a few months, he has survived a scrummaging war with Leicester - no one's idea of a quiet afternoon by the babbling brook - and pulverised a Wasps front row featuring a 59-cap All Black in Craig Dowd. He is now a first-choice prop at club level, and is confidently expected to nail down an England starting position over the next six months.

"I think it would be wrong of me to suggest that my time has come," he said. "That would be pretty presumptuous, considering the number of props out there who have done a hell of a lot more in this game than me. But I definitely think my time is coming. I've reached the stage now where I want to start matches. While the coaches at Bath did me a favour running me off the bench for a season or so, I found it hugely frustrating then and would find it frustrating now. The competition for places is strong whatever the environment, Bath or England, but just because I'm young, it doesn't mean I'm happy with a place on the bench."

Like the vast majority of his fellow Lions, he did not receive Woodward's promised text message advising him of his inclusion in the squad. (The World Cup-winning coach's reputation as a technocrat has taken something of a hammering this week).

"Danny Grewcock and I were in a Bath team meeting when the messages were due," Stevens said. "Nothing happened. Danny was pretty cool about it; I was a nervous wreck. Then our press officer poked his head around the door and gave me a knowing look. I really couldn't have been happier. It's amazing when you think about it."

Thinking is one of Stevens' long suits. He first came to England with the idea of studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, but failed to make the cut. "I guess I wasn't bright enough," he said, without a hint of malice. He then opted to read something similar at Bath University - his final examinations clash with the Lions tour, so he is praying to the good lord that his tutors wangle a deferment - and gravitated naturally towards the Rec, where he was awarded a place in one of the more productive academies in the professional club game. After a season's tuition, he was promoted to the senior squad and told to get on with it.

And so it is that he faces Leeds today and finds himself 80 minutes from a first winner's medal. At the early scrums, he is guaranteed an earful from Mark Regan, that supremely irritating wind-up merchant of a hooker who had just left Bath when Stevens arrived at the club and is now nearing the end of a three-season stint with Leeds. "I'm not sure there will be much in the way of content, but that won't stop him talking," said the prop. "Actually, I have a lot of time for 'Ronnie'. He was in the England pack when I won my first cap and it was good for my confidence to have someone like him around."

These days, Stevens generates his own confidence. It will be surprising indeed if he is not among the dominant performers in today's final, and should he end the afternoon with some silver dangling from his neck, even the hard-bitten front-rowers of yesteryear might be prepared to acknowledge his arrival as a worthy successor. In which case, he will have earned himself a drink, Chilcott-style.

It was the mighty Cooch who famously said: "I think I'll have a quiet pint, followed by 19 noisy ones." If Stevens can meet those standards, he will surely take his place in the pantheon.

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