David Flatman: My mate Matt will always have home at the Rec
No need to wrestle with your conscience – Stevens made a mistake but we'd be glad to have him back
Sunday 29 November 2009
People seem to have lots of different ideas about what constitutes true friendship. Some want to be the shoulder to cry on, others the honest ally to keep his contemporaries in check. I have friends who seem only truly comfortable during the good times and others to whom I turn in times of need. For me, the value of friendship is that we can all, despite our idiosyncrasies, exist together with enjoyment, tolerance and empathy.
Matt Stevens is my friend, and I hope he always will be. Sure, we do not speak every day or eat together every week. We sometimes share a coffee at his swanky new café, sometimes enjoy a beer in the same building, and we always do so as friends.
Last January, Matt received a two-year ban for taking a banned substance during competition – a huge blow to both career and reputation. How I would cope with this I do not know and hope never to find out, but the way he conducted himself immediately after the story broke, and continues to do, has elevated him, in my eyes, to a new place in the hearts and minds of the Bath players and public.
You see, Matt never denied having made a mistake. He didn't go down the "my drink got spiked" route. He just got on with it. No whining, no bitterness, just moving forward. Since then he has, with Lee Mears, opened the gorgeous Jika Jika Coffee Shop and Canteen in Bath. He has also become the British submission-wrestling champion. All this in roughly 10 months.
Was he not meant to sulk and blame someone else for a while first? Not a chance. And it is this character, not to mention his enviable level of rugby ability, which has made him hot property once again.
Lawrence Dallaglio, the one-man publicity machine, has already declared to the world an interest in giving Stevens a home at Wasps, who, in the words of Lawrence himself, are famed for taking in all sorts of waifs and strays. Now call me a pedant, but I would not put a champion wrestler and successful business director into either category.
What he is, is a great, great signing waiting to happen. Do not forget, Matt will be just 28 when his ban expires, and folk who seem to know their onions say that prop forwards do not reach their peak until at least the 30 mark.
So it was with real glee that I read the comments of Nick Blofeld, our CEO at Bath, stating our desire to bring Matt back to the Rec. Players come and go in this game and there seems to be little room for sentiment now that the result is everything, but to see Matt run out for another club would, to me, be very sad. He was so at home in Bath and he really suited it. The sociable, cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city after dark, the easy, laid-back team breakfasts by the river and 30-second commute from home to work (early starts are not a strength). He just fitted in and we loved having him here.
Of course, with big Davey Wilson and wily veteran (or just "old") Duncan Bell – both incumbent internationals – fit and firing, we are not exactly struggling on the tighthead side of the scrum, but that really is not the point. Matt is a wonderful rugby player, probably the best ball-carrying prop on the planet. He is a big, confident, opinionated, intelligent, guitar-playing wrestler with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of coffees of the world. He has an awful lot going for him and just one thing hanging over his head.
So ask yourself, as a friend, would you ostracise the man who made a mistake purely because he should have known better? Would you, from a safe distance, cast aspersions on him because all highly paid athletes who commit social errors are to be executed for appearing too human?
I wouldn't. I would bring him back and watch him grow again. It is not about him proving a point, nor is it about Bath signing another big name. This is about sending a message that compassion is not a weakness. Matt may sport a particularly posh South African accent but he is a Bath boy now and here, among his friends, he always has a home.
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