Matt Stevens: Big fish in a small Bath

He has been laid low by an arrogance bred of playing in a city where rugby stars can believe they are untouchable. Chris Hewett reports
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The first thing to be understood about Matt Stevens as he contemplates life as a sporting pariah is that he is not a rugby cheat, although he has made a spectacularly good job of cheating himself. He did not start using cocaine because he thought it would make him a better player, and this will surely be acknowledged by those who ultimately pass judgement on the England forward's future in the union game. Neither has Stevens committed a sin of stupidity by flirting so recklessly with addictive drugs, for he is anything but a stupid man. His is a sin of arrogance, which seems worse somehow.

Bath, the city in which the naturalised South African has lived and played since arriving in the country from Cape Town, is the kind of place easily capable of instilling a delusional sense of untouchability in those sportsmen who fail to arm themselves against it. There is no shortage of money there, no shortage of luxury accommodation amid the Georgian grandeur, or of swanky late-night bars happy to throw open their doors to the Big Time Charlies of the rugby club. Rugby is king in Bath, as it is in Gloucester and Northampton but virtually nowhere else east of the River Severn. To be a prominent member of the first XV strolling across Pulteney Bridge is, in its own small way, to be Kaka ambling past the fashion houses of Milan.

We have yet to hear the fine detail of Stevens' sad case, which will be put before a European Rugby Cup disciplinary panel over the next few days as a result of the positive dope sample given by the tight-head prop following his team's victory in Glasgow shortly before Christmas. But while club officials spent yesterday talking of their profound surprise at this turn of events – one spoke, almost amusingly, of "shock and awfulness" – there were not many in the wider rugby community being treated for acute levels of astonishment. Rumours of "hard partying" – another euphemism, like "recreational" and "substance" – have been two-a-penny in Bath for months.

It is the classic "big fish, small pond" syndrome, well known to sporting folk in Wales and New Zealand – perhaps the two countries in the world most familiar with rugby scandals. Last summer, while Auckland police were failing in an extravagantly public fashion to interview four members of the England touring party over an accusation of sexual misconduct, the All Black captain Richie McCaw said this: "The first thing you have to decide is whether the upside of wearing the shirt beats the downside of living in a goldfish bowl." In other words, rugby fame in rugby communities comes at a price, and it is paid in the currency of self-discipline.

Stevens has split the local community. On one side of the divide stand those who are sympathetic to his plight and believe the player showed considerable courage and integrity in giving a painfully honest account of his "illness" on satellite television. On the other side stand the hang 'em high brigade, along with the cynics who wonder whether the timing of the broadcast – 5pm on the dot – was a New Labourish exercise in burying bad news. Certainly, there was something else going on at that precise moment: in Washington DC, apparently.

This open debate over the whys and wherefores of the television appearance, which the Bath club had no part in organising, demonstrates, in microcosm, how difficult it will be for Stevens to fulfil his stated wish of recovering "the faith people had in me". Where does he begin? Even if the tribunal makes a distinction between "social" drug use and that of the performance-enhancing variety and throws only a single book at him, as opposed to an entire library, he is likely to be out of sight and out of mind for many months.

According to one Bath source, he will not even be able to train while suspended. This would be calamitous for any professional front-row forward in mid-career, and is positively catastrophic for Stevens, who is in the early stages of a four-year contract at the Recreation Ground. The fitness levels required of the modern-day prop are so considerable that it is difficult to imagine how they might be maintained outside of the club environment. Even if the Bath management keeps Stevens on – and that is a mighty big "if", given the well known aversion of Andrew Brownsword, the chairman and financier-in-chief, to even the slightest whiff of controversy – he will be damaged goods by the time he resumes active participation.

As for England, the national manager, Martin Johnson, has little choice but to take a dark view of the Stevens affair. Johnson is nobody's idea of a puritan – he has been known to tell the odd tale of rampant alcoholic excess during his playing days with Leicester and, indeed, his country – but as recently as last August he responded to the tawdry incident in Auckland by reminding his Test players, with considerable force, of their duties and responsibilities. "We've been having the wrong kind of headlines and it can't happen again," he said, leaving himself very little room for manoeuvre.

His response yesterday reflected this. "Illegal drug use cannot be tolerated," he said, adding only that he hoped Stevens' rehabilitation programme would be successful. If the player was yearning for a sign that Johnson might forgive and forget at some point in the relatively near future, he yearned in vain. The prospects of him adding to his 32 caps are faint, almost to the point of invisibility.

Like the national team, the Bath club has suffered its share of negative publicity during the professional era, from high-profile disciplinary hearings to trials at Crown Court. But this is more depressing than anything that went before, for it concerns an international player drowning in a sea of self-inflicted trouble, crying out for help. Stevens will receive that help, from many different sources. Whether it will allow him to salvage even a small part of the career he once enjoyed is quite another matter.

Ruggie Druggies: Oval ball scandals

Wendell Sailor The Australian winger tested positive for cocaine after club match in April 2006. Made unsuccessful appeal against two-year ban from Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency.

Pieter de Villiers Given short ban after failing a random drugs test in December 2002, when traces of cocaine and ecstasy were found. Became the first French rugby union international to test positive for banned substances.

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