Stevens eager to 'maul and brawl' with islanders

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The Independent Online

Matt Stevens is still unsure about the time – "It might have been two in the morning, maybe three" – when he sat down to record his thoughts in the hours immediately following England's abject performance against the Springboks at Stade de France last week, but it was certainly late. The Bath prop is being paid a decent sum to enlighten the readers of a national Sunday newspaper, but there are moments in life when the therapy matters more than the money. Stevens knew there were personal issues to be addressed and demons to be confronted, so he set about putting pen to paper.

It was not quite a throwback to Rimbaud and Verlaine. For one thing, the poets did their writing in the darker corners of Paris rather than a swanky hotel room in Versailles; for another, neither Frenchman was a cauliflower-eared prop forward weighing the best part of 20st. But as Stevens explained: "I couldn't have slept. The adrenaline was still rushing through me, the emotions were still too powerful. It was a night for caffeine and writing."

Last Friday evening was difficult for everyone who could not claim to be South African. For a South African claiming to be English, it was doubly so. Born in Durban, and with family still running hotels and game reserves in the republic, Stevens was always uncomfortably aware that if the world champions found themselves on the wrong end of the result, his life decisions would be energetically discussed and ruthlessly dissected and that those closest to him would share in his discomfort. "My family were disappointed for me," he admitted this week. "My South African friends were disappointed for me too, if not that disappointed."

By the standards of the modern-day professional rugby player, Stevens is a renaissance man. He is highly musical – he plays the guitar rather well, and sings to a seriously high standard – and is sufficiently aware of the big wide world outside the union bubble to have raised £125,000 for the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, a feat that earned him an audience with the father of the "Rainbow Nation" last summer. Who better to interrogate on the subject of England's failings at this tournament, and the prospect of them finding some salvation against Samoa this afternoon?

"I think an England pack should expect to scrummage well, and drive the ball productively, against any set of forwards in the competition," he said. "This is a strong point of our game, to the extent that we fear no one. I would certainly be alarmed if we failed to put pressure on the Samoans in this area. It's not that they are weak at the set piece, but if we're being honest, they're not as well-drilled at scrum and line-out as we would hope to be.

"I'll be up against Cencus Johnston, who is one of the bigger loose-head props in the game. I know him well because we both play in the Premiership, and when he's operating in a well-organised Saracens unit he can be difficult to handle. But he's not playing for Saracens here, is he? International rugby is different and, for all his strength, I believe we are equipped to dominate the Samoans at close quarters."

Being something of a student of the game, it will not have escaped Stevens' notice that these are not original notions. Mark Regan and Julian White, two of the more belligerent set-piece operators in English rugby, thought they would give the Samoan scrum what for in Melbourne at the last World Cup in 2003, only to find themselves substituted after 50 minutes. White played only another 27 minutes in the tournament, as a substitute for Phil Vickery in the "nothing" match against Uruguay; Regan did not reappear for so much as a single second. If the Pacific islanders were ultimately overpowered, they certainly mangled a reputation or two on their way out of the competition.

Encouragingly, Stevens' one experience of playing international rugby against today's opponents was wholly positive. Together with his fellow prop Andrew Sheridan, he started the match at Twickenham in the autumn of 2005 that ended in a 40-3 victory for the world champions – by some distance the best win of the four they have recorded against the islanders since 1995.

Perhaps alone among the current squad, he is at the cutting edge of the sport in terms of his skill set, gifts that would once have seen him banned from the front-row union for rank insubordination. He can time a run, cut an angle, flick a pass off either hand, offload in the tackle. If he has not always had it his own way in the dim recesses of the scrum, he has the ability to learn a lesson and act upon it.

Questions of an old-fashioned type still nag, though. Is he as acquainted as a prop should be with what might be described as the dark arts? Come to think of it, is there even so much as a molecule of genuine bastardy in any of the current English forwards, with the obvious exceptions of Regan, Phil Vickery, Lawrence Dallaglio, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry, four of whom are well past 30 and only one of whom – Corry – will start this afternoon's game?

"There are some bloody good maulers and brawlers in this team, let me assure you," Stevens responded, considerably put out that anyone should suggest otherwise. "I know what you're saying. You're putting forward the theory that we're not tough enough, that we don't clear the breakdown as quickly and ruthlessly as other teams. I don't think for one minute that it's a question of lack of toughness. I think the issues are very different. Yes, we're producing slow ball from the tackle area. Why? Because we're not carrying the ball far enough to give ourselves targets to hit at pace. We've talked about it, and we'll address it. We have the ball-carriers to do the job. It's a matter of using our strengths to their best effect.

"We need to put some tempo into our game. That's obvious. There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to do it – hell, Brian Ashton was the guy who introduced tempo to English rugby. If anything is going to get us playing with some spark, it should be that defeat last Friday. We were pretty subdued after the game, and with good reason. It was painful, losing like that. But we're in a "no tomorrow" situation now. We have to beat Samoa."

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