Matt Stevens: Rising star of the front row

Matt Stevens is a renaissance man with the neck of a rhino. England's tight-head prop, who has burst on to the Six Nations scene, tells Beverley Turner about choirs, cauliflower ears and his rapid ascent to the top of international rugby
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The Independent Online

There is an ongoing debate in our house about the merits of our son playing rugby. With a father who reveres the sport and its protagonists and a mother who cannot see beyond clashing heads and flattened noses, our son might one day be caught in a familial scrum.

And yet I must begrudgingly admit that each time I meet a professional rugby player, with their courteous manners, articulate speech and manifold interests, I find myself disoriented by the contrast between the lion on the pitch and pussycat off it.

Perhaps interviewing Matt Stevens will help. England's 23-year-old tight-head prop, who began an under-21 international career in his native South Africa but who is currently impressing for England in the Six Nations Championship, lives in Bath with his guitar, his outdoor hot-tub and a fellow Bath University student.

Physically, he is the archetypal front-rower: 6ft 2in, 18st and the neck of a rhino - the type of guy that you would avoid in a nightclub after 1am. Except that I had already seen him in a nightclub after 1am, when England celebrated their Six Nations victory over Wales, and his deft-footed moves on the dancefloor were utterly anomalous with his thundering performance on the pitch.

Then there are the rumours of his singing. On the promise of an acoustic performance, I find myself at Stevens' kitchen table as he pours me a cup of coffee. "I'm afraid my cafetiere is broken," he says, as it spills out of the bottom under his considerable plunging force.

Like his Georgian terraced home, Stevens is solid, full of heritage and incongruously refined. I have heard that his father owns half of South Africa, which he finds hilarious. "Who told you that?" he laughs. "That's not true, but he has done very well in hotels. And my dad loves rugby. He wants to give the players free holidays so that he can hang out with them."

Hanging out at one of his father's hotels would have been an easy option, but after boarding at Durban's exclusive Kearsney School, his interests were more varied. "The school believed in a type of renaissance, balanced education, so alongside sport I learnt loads of different instruments," he explains, "and the choir mistress was this amazing lady who made everyone audition for her. She found out I had this relatively good voice and said, 'You're in the choir - no choice'."

He must be the only professional rugby player to have an Olympic gold medal - from the 2000 Viennese Choir Olympics. These days he attends open mic nights, with his guitar, at local pubs and enjoys nothing more than having his more musically inclined mates round for dinner. "Where you're sitting right now we have the biggest jamming sessions," he smiles. "I hope to have maybe 10 more years in rugby but I'd love to do something in music afterwards. There are so many talented people out there though - at least they will be hobbies until the day I die."

How can he explain those dance moves? He laughs. "We did gumboot dancing, which started in the mines in South Africa. We would go to girls' schools wearing leopard-print vests, slapping our knees and the soles of our wellington boots. We once performed in front of 6,000 people. Now I think, 'Oh my God, what was I doing'?"

He admits such revelations could lead to serious recriminations from his team-mates. The youngest member of the England side, he enjoys the influence of more experienced players, citing the 33-year-olds Matt Dawson and Danny Grewcock as two of his closest mates. They give him stick already, not least because of his considerably built neck and head. "I do have a big head," he admits, "but it's not actually the biggest on the team. That belongs to Joe Worsley. Joe's is 64cm, mine is 63cm, although we haven't measured Andrew Sheridan's yet. He won't let us close enough to do it."

Stevens keeps his 63cm in a scrum cap, originally donned at his mother's request. "When I was 17 I started to get cauliflower ears and mum said, 'Oh Matt, you can't start looking like Graham Rowntree', so she made me wear it. I'm glad she did. It wasn't about being a tough guy. Cauliflower ear is quite painful and it distracts you from playing."

There were few signs of distraction in his opening Six Nations appearances, which earned him universal praise and the man-of-the-match award against Wales. It isn't too much to say that England missed him when injury kept him out of the team who faced Scotland at Murrayfield - and lost - and his recall to face France in Paris this weekend, in one of the toughest tests the game has to offer, was inevitable.

But making it on the international stage wasn't inevitable.

Stevens' mother, a political journalist, was emotionally and politically opposed to rugby. "She was a member of a party called Black Sash, a women's movement," he explains, "and to her, rugby was the sport of the white nationalist party; it embodied the racist Africaans culture."

Only when Nelson Mandela gave the sport his blessing did she begin to change her mind. "Now," he says, "she recognises that it is racially representative in South Africa, with a lot more black and Asian people in the sport. Plus, like you, the more people she met in the game, the more she came to love it."

Stevens' interest in the politics of South African rugby have inspired his dissertation, which is due for submission eight weeks after the Six Nations ends on 18 March. Under the title "Affirmative Action in South African Rugby", he is exploring the country's policy of prescribing a quota of non-white players per team. "Lots of people have an opinion on it without actually knowing what its aims are," he says. "I want to have a disimpassioned and informed view." He isastute enough not to profess an affirmative opinion of his own - yet.

The Nelson Mandela clock above his fireplace is one symbol of his love for South Africa. Yet he seems comfortable with two cultural identities that might reside less comfortably within others. "I always had a romantic association with England and wanted to do Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford," he says, "but I didn't get in. My grandmother and mum went to Oxford and I wanted to follow in their footsteps." An English grandfather and a father with a British passport have enabled him to play for England anyway.

He admits that, having not yet played against South Africa, he has confronted very little criticism for his change of allegiance.

"I came over here to study politics and economics and ended up playing for a really strong team in Bath with a lot of English players. I got really comfortable in that environment so was asked to play for England. I just took the opportunity that I got."

Therein lies his talent - to step up to the mark, be it in a scrummage or in front of a microphone. As he picks up his guitar he explains that rather than forcing players to be macho, rugby actually frees them from such pressures.

"Players aren't trying to be tough guys because they know they're tough. When you get beaten up every Saturday you don't need to go out and fight. You get rid of enough testosterone on the pitch." And then I get my performance.

Slouching on his battered leather sofa, eyes to the ceiling, he sings Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" in a voice reminiscent of Marley himself - if with echoes of Sting and shades of Jack Johnson.

Perhaps I will let my son play rugby - as long as he still listens to his mother and learns to play the guitar.