Stevens abandons heritage to pledge loyalty to red rose

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The Independent Online

Matt Stevens, the latest addition to Clive Woodward's heavily populated stable of front-row workhorses, has assured the red-rose coaching staff that he has turned his back on his native South Africa - definitely, irrevocably, once and for all. There are any number of reasons why an ambitious young forward might throw in his lot with the new world champions rather than the Springboks, but the principal one is sufficiently persuasive in itself: in England, you get to train with your clothes on.

Stevens did not refer to his home country's humiliation as a result of the revelations concerning their spellbindingly embarrassing pre-World Cup boot camp, at which such eminent players as Breyton Paulse, Joost van der Westhuizen, Joe van Niekerk and Corne Krige appeared to spend most of their time in birthday suits rather than tracksuits.

But as he cast a wide and scarcely believing eye around the baroque splendour of England's hotel hideaway in Surrey, he would have been less than human had he not compared his surroundings to the icy lakes and insect-infested manholes in which his compatriots were submerged and buried during the summer.

It was Andy Robinson who phoned the 21-year-old economics student to inform him of his selection for today's non-cap match between an England XV and the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham. Who better? Robinson is England's forward coach, the man who squeezed the best from the likes of Trevor Woodman and Phil Vickery when things were tight in Australia last month. He is also a Bath man through and through, and Stevens happens to play for Bath.

How did Stevens react? "Andy told me there was a place for me in this team, provided I was absolutely passionate about playing for England," he said. "I told him I'd never been more passionate about anything in my life. But I asked him for a little time, because I knew there were phone calls home that had to be made. To my father, my mother and my cat." Your cat? "No, Mike Catt," he shouted, for the benefit of those who had misheard him.

One of Stevens' clubmates, Catt hails from Port Elizabeth, had made the same journey and the same decision in the 1990s and, as a result, understood all about the complexities of the situation. He unhesitatingly advised Stevens to grasp the opportunity while it was in reach.

Stevens' father, Russell, a wealthy hotelier with heavy interests in some of South Africa's most seductive game parks and resorts, also gave his blessing. "He's English, after all," the new boy said.

Great claims are frequently made on behalf of dynamic youngsters who break into the England set-up with no more than a handful of Premiership matches behind them, yet if Stevens is less experienced than most - to this day, he has started only two senior matches for his club - it is no exaggeration to state that England have captured one of the prime talents of this, or any other, season.

Robinson is hardly a man to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of a tight forward who barely knows what it is to receive a smack in the chops at the first line-out, but the coach admits to being "particularly excited about this bloke". In Robinson-speak, this is the equivalent of a Christmas card and a bunch of flowers.

"Matt is very strong, which is an obvious requirement; we have two of the best line-out lifters in the world in Trevor Woodman and Phil Vickery, and he is made of similar stuff," the coach said. "His scrummaging is improving by the week and as he can play in all three front-row positions, the potential flexibility he offers us is enormous. And then there is his ball-carrying, which is something else. In that department, he's got it. But none of this counts for anything unless he's burning to play for England. That was the question I wanted answering, and I'm happy with his response."

A product of Kearsney College, one of Durban's stronger sporting schools, Stevens captained his province at under-18 and under-19 levels, played for South Africa's under-19 side and won under-21 honours for both Natal and Western Province. He was coached by Kearsney's most celebrated rugby-playing product, the former Springbok prop Harry Newton Walker, who played for the Boks in the great 1956 Test series against the All Blacks in New Zealand.

"I was well coached right the way up through the age-groups, but I think Harry had the biggest impact on me," he said. "He was the first Springbok produced by my school, and he is held in massive respect. To play against a team of New Zealanders at this level, even in a non-cap match, will be special. I was brought up on stories of people like Harry taking on the All Blacks."

If Stevens was successfully schooled in the timeless arts of front-row play by a Springbok international, he is being thoroughly modernised by the all-Australian back-room team at Bath. John Connolly was still working with Swansea when the youngster made his precocious debut off the bench in last season's Parker Pen Challenge Cup semi-final against Saracens and left the formidable Abdel Benazzi in a shallow grave within seconds of taking the field, but the former Queensland and Stade Françcais coach quickly reached the same conclusion as Michael Foley and Brian Smith, who had given Stevens his chance.

"First and foremost, he reminds me of an old Wallaby prop of the 1980s called Tony D'Arcy," Connolly said this week. "Tony could do the lot - scrummage, tackle, kick the ball miles, run like a stag - and he would have won far more caps for the Wallabies had he not moved to rugby league.

"Matt has a lot of Sylvain Marconnet about him, too. I worked with Marconnet at Stade Français and was startled by his range of skills. Matt is similarly gifted. And I'll tell you something else: when he plays at Twickenham, he won't disappear into his shell. He isn't an arrogant player by any stretch of the imagination, but he is very confident in his ability."

Having chosen Bath as his English base - "I knew all about them at school, because they had Catt and Guscott and Redman and Ubogu; they were a big name all around the world," he explained - Stevens has fallen in love with the club and the city. He plays guitar in the pubs and clubs a stone's throw from the Recreation Ground (he may not be Jimmy Page, but his strumming skills are far in advance of Jonny Wilkinson's) and he fully intends to complete his studies at the local university.

"The place has a rugby ethic to which I respond," Stevens said. "It is everything I thought it would be." And Twickenham? What part does the old cabbage patch play in Stevens' dreams of future glory?

"I've been there once; Mike Tindall got me tickets for the England-Italy game in last season's Six Nations' Championship. It's quite a stadium, isn't it? I've played in front of big crowds before, usually in curtain-raiser games before a Currie Cup or Super 12 match at King's Park in Durban.

"But in those matches, the crowd builds up right at the end, after people have finished their barbecues and are ready to watch the main event. This time, I'll be running out to the noise of 70,000 supporters. This England business may have happened very suddenly, but the reality will hit me then, I'm sure."

Soon enough, the reality will also hit the Springbok public - another exceptional talent playing in the strip of another country. Mike Catt, Stuart Abbott, Matt Stevens ... the list is growing. At this rate, the South Africans will require a second Kamp Staaldraad, not to prepare players for a World Cup, but to stop them from leaving the country.