Matt finished? Two-year ban could spell the end

Drugs furore overshadows Bath's do-or-die Heineken Cup clash today
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The Independent Online

Now we know, or think we know, why Julian White was included in England's Saxons squad. There was bemusement all round when White, at the age of 35 and one of the most destructive scrummagers in the game, was named in what is essentially a development programme. He stood out like a sore thumb but, as a Saxon, White was in line for immediate promotion at tighthead should anything happen to Matt Stevens or Phil Vickery. The rest is hysteria.

Stevens failed a drugs test after Bath played Glasgow in a Heineken Cup match just before Christmas, but it wasn't until last Monday that the club learnt of the outcome. On Tuesday morning the new-age prop had a brief phone conversation with his coach, Steve Meehan, who was preparing for one of Bath's biggest games, the do-or-die Heineken Cup clash with Toulouse at the Rec today. "He apologised," Meehan said, "but there was not a lot that could be said." The club were landed with a toxic debt.

At 5pm that afternoon, coinciding with the inauguration of Barack Obama, Stevens appeared on Sky to deliver his startling admission, that he and drugs were bosom pals. "I was tested for a prohibited substance but it's not performance-enhancing, so you can take what you want from that. It's pretty distressing talking about this. When you think about how much time people have put into my career... and I have thrown it away. Like any drug problem, you don't know it's happening and then it mounts up. Before you know it you have a problem and an illness."

Stevens, who has shared accommodation in Bath with team-mates, added: "It started off with just a couple of nights, taking it with friends. It wasn't a big deal, but the thing about drugs is that it so quickly becomes a big deal. I owe it to everyone to admit that. I want to say I'm truly very sorry. I want to change my life and get back the faith that people had in me."

Stevens remained in Bath last week, awaiting an appearance before a European Rugby Cup disciplinary panel. Tomorrow he should have been travelling to Portugal with England for a Six Nations training camp. The going rate for drugs offences is a two-year ban during which the outcast cannot train with his team or set foot in any rugby club. Almost to a man, his contemporaries believe he has shown courage and honesty. Martin Johnson, the England manager, said there was zero tolerance on such matters but that he hoped Stevens would be rehabilitated.

Martyn Thomas, the RFU chairman, was more supportive. While reiterating that there was no difference between performance-enhancing and recreational drugs, he added: "We are dealing with a charming young man who has a huge amount going for him. It's disappointment, rather than anger, tempered by sadness because he's such a nice guy. He's part of the rugby family. The crown may have slipped but we will gather round and help one of our family."

This was in contrast to the view of Bob Calleja, the Bath chief executive, who said: "This week should have been about the anticipation of a classic match with Toulouse. Instead the headlines have been dominated by Matt Stevens. We all feel let down. This is a very serious matter."

Meanwhile, Meehan's task has been to keep Bath focused on beating Toulouse, three-times Heineken Cup champions, during the most tumultuous week in the West Country club's history. "It's up to us now," the coach said. "There's no point waffling on about what's happened and I've not yet analysed my feelings about it. It could have a positive effect or it could upset us. I can't ring Toulouse and ask them to put the game back. I've reminded the team of all the hard work they've put in and it should be anotherenthralling 80 minutes at the Rec."

Bath lost the pool opener in Toulouse 18-16, conceding a penalty in the 82nd minute. "We were seven seconds from victory," Meehan said. "Toulouse know we're a major threat and they will have to play exceptionally well to beat us at the Rec. You can expect the unexpected from them. They'll always throw something different at you but our knowledge of Toulouse is sound and our preparation has been as good as it can be."

Under the circumstances that is heartening, if surprising. And what of his star prop, the 26-year-old who has 32 England caps and was poised to go on the Lions tour this summer to South Africa, the land of his birth?

"If Matt receives a two-year ban, during that time he might find other things in life," Meehan said. "Would he want to come back? It's not just a question of being a professional rugby player. Two years can totally change a man."