Stevens the youthful shoulder to build on

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The Independent Online

Lost somewhere in the war of words surrounding Jonathan Kaplan in Dublin was a public message of congratulation delivered by Andy Robinson to England's newest Six Nations prop. "Matt Stevens had an awesome game at tighthead," said the coach.

Lost somewhere in the war of words surrounding Jonathan Kaplan in Dublin was a public message of congratulation delivered by Andy Robinson to England's newest Six Nations prop. "Matt Stevens had an awesome game at tighthead," said the coach.

Stevens himself was more circumspect. "I'm glad I didn't disappoint too much," said the 22-year-old South African of his first start for his adopted country. Which is prop-speak for "actually, I did bloody well, but it doesn't do to blow your own trumpet in this game".

One reason is that the next pack of opposing forwards is never long in charging over the horizon, and Stevens turns out today for his club, Bath, at Gloucester in the Powergen Cup, this time on the loosehead side of the scrum. Different role, same challenge of preventing his head being rammed between his shoulder blades. "Your neck is your livelihood," said Stevens with a half-rueful relish.

Gallows humour comes with the job. Asked about Kaplan's refereeing, Stevens said: "It was fine, he had a good game." Unfortunately that was about five years ago, when Stevens was playing for his school, Kearsney in Durban.

What about last Sunday, Matt? "I don't think he had a great game, but that's not for me to worry about. A lot of the guys weren't worried about it during the match, but obviously thinking about it afterwards they were pretty pissed off. When Josh [Lewsey] was shouting at the ref for a try I was right there but I couldn't see it and I wasn't really thinking about it. I was thinking about the next scrum."

Props are not sheepdogs: they don't respond well to men with whistles. Not even when, like Kaplan, he is an old neighbour (he and Stevens lived on the same street in the Morningside suburb of Durban). Kaplan advised Stevens to "take the bind" at an early scrum and got an old-fashioned sideways glance in response.

Stevens was out to defy the pundits queueing up to predict he would be eaten alive by the Ireland pack - Brian Moore on BBC TV warned: "I think he's going to have a hard time this afternoon." Instead, doubtless to the relief of Robinson, who has had many of his selections ripped apart during England's losing run, Stevens lasted the full 80 minutes, which meant outlasting the Irish loosehead, Reggie Corrigan, who was replaced during the second half by Marcus Horan.

"That's very kind of you," said Stevens, when it was pointed out that he was still making penetrative carries into the Ireland 22 in the last 10 minutes, and holding his side up at two scrums in the final 60 seconds. "I was happy in some areas and had a few issues in others. Firstly, I always want to scrummage well, and I'm glad I wasn't pulled off - that the coaches had that trust in me. Secondly, I want a good work-rate around the field, to make a difference. Obviously if you lose you don't ever think you did enough."

Rarely in his young career has Stevens started and finished; Magnus Magnusson he ain't. Since joining Bath - he is in his third year studying economics and politics at the city's university - he has made 11 starts, and 42 more appearances as a substitute. "If England look after him properly," said Bath's head coach, John Connolly, last season, "they will have a champion tighthead at their disposal."

Look after him? Robinson is showing signs of building a team around him. Stevens was a run-on tighthead for England in the World Under-21 Champion-ship in 2003 (after which the coach, Brian Ashton, identified him and scrum-half Clive Stuart-Smith as having "responded to the intensity and the challenge of this level of competition").

Later the same year, when Martin Johnson's World Cup winners came home for a celebration match against the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham, Phil Vickery was injured and Julian White about to undergo an operation. On an occasion likened to the Last Night of the Proms, it was Stevens' first night as a prop in the England team, albeit one of the non-cap variety. Again, he started at tighthead, and scored a try before suffering a "stinger" to his shoulder. Two caps as a replacement in New Zealand last summer were cut short by a twisted knee.

Now Vickery, who broke an arm when Gloucester beat Bath 17-16 in the Premiership a fortnight ago, and White, with a neck problem, are absent again, and Stevens has kept his place in England's 30-man squad to prepare for the final two Six Nations matches at Twickenham.

"I think the team are going to play really well against Italy and Scotland," he said. "I have a really good feeling that the side played averagely against Wales, better against France and a little better still against Ireland. There's pressure but, to be honest, with the guys we've got in the team, the country deserves to expect good things. If I had a memory of Lansdowne Road - apart from singing "God Save The Queen" and the immensity of it all - it was the resolve of the guys. Even when the referee had given this [Lewsey] call against us, there was the resolve to get back and try to score again. They don't ever give up, and that's what you expect of an English rugby team."

With Bath, Stevens has spent more time on the bench than a High Court judge, more often than not deployed as a utility back-up to Dave Barnes and Duncan Bell. "I see myself as a tighthead," said Stevens, "and I think I'm a better tighthead at the moment because I have had more experience there."

Not like the great Jason Leonard, who loathed switching from his favoured left side of the scrum, where the weight of the collision is concentrated on the right shoulder?

Stevens, a bookish sort who likes to play rock guitar, is too bright to rock the boat. He also has his mother's background as a political journalist - she wrote a book on Chief Buthelezi and articles for anti-apartheid magazines - to help him spot a curve-ball question. "I'm happy to play loosehead as well," he said.

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