Stevens underlines England credentials

Bath 22 - Bourgoin 12
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The Independent Online

Matthew Stevens, exposed to the facts of international life by England back in the summer but still a Heineken Cup virgin until this rain-lashed affair at the Recreation Ground, was in no position, physically or figuratively, to see the whole picture on Saturday afternoon. This was largely due to the whereabouts of his head at scrum-time. Taken to the cleaners by the grisly French Test front-rower Olivier Milloud, the young tight-head prop spent so long peering at parts of himself generally visible only with the aid of a mirror, he probably rolled home after the game.

Matthew Stevens, exposed to the facts of international life by England back in the summer but still a Heineken Cup virgin until this rain-lashed affair at the Recreation Ground, was in no position, physically or figuratively, to see the whole picture on Saturday afternoon. This was largely due to the whereabouts of his head at scrum-time. Taken to the cleaners by the grisly French Test front-rower Olivier Milloud, the young tight-head prop spent so long peering at parts of himself generally visible only with the aid of a mirror, he probably rolled home after the game.

Bad news for England, who have invested lashings of faith in the 22-year-old Stevens as the first of a new generation of footballing props? Quite the opposite, actually. While he found Milloud far too hot to handle in the tight - "Scrummaging is not one of life's easier activities when you have your head up your arse," said John Connolly, the Bath coach, in sympathetic tones - Stevens showed enough fortitude to dispel any notion that he might be a soft touch in the heart and soul department. He also managed to make a fistful of telling contributions around the field, the like of which Milloud, for one, would not attempt in a month of Sundays, let alone accomplish.

After 25 minutes of torment at the set-piece, Stevens drove deep into the soft underbelly of the Bourgoin defence to set up a comfortable penalty shot for Olly Barkley. Nine minutes later, he finished off a long Bath attack launched by Robbie Fleck and the magnificent Andy Beattie, barrelling over from a dozen metres with half the Lyonnais wrapped around his considerable frame. Then, midway through the third quarter, he put himself in genius territory, flicking up a pass from the floor to Barkley, who promptly milked the overlap to send Beattie sliding in at the right corner.

Both Connolly and Jack Rowell, the director of rugby, saw this as a rite of passage for one of English rugby's richer talents. Connolly has been reluctant to start Stevens in big matches, preferring to run with Duncan Bell, a more experienced operator by far. But there is no doubt in his mind as to the cut of the apprentice's jib, just as Rowell had few doubts about David Sole and Victor Ubogu a generation ago. Sole and Ubogu pitched up at the Rec as rookie props who could do everything except scrummage. By the time they left, they could hold up their end without even thinking about it.

Milloud apart, Bourgoin were not holding up anything much by close of play. The Frenchmen had started confidently enough, establishing a six-point lead through the boot of Benjamin Boyet as reward for some forthright work up front, where Benoît Cabello and Pascal Papé caught the eye. But Stevens's try hurt them badly, and when the retreating Jean-Francois Coux mounted his challenge for the "worst tactical kick of the century" gong - an indescribably dumb in-field hack gratefully received by Mike Tindall at full tilt - Bath were able to launch the attack that ended in Beattie's game-breaking score.

"We are lambs away, but lions at home," snarled Laurent Seigne, the formidable Bourgoin coach - a clear indication that Bath can expect a rough ride when they play the return fixture at Stade Pierre Rajon in January. It will be another stage in the education of young Master Stevens. Having survived examination by flock, he can now look forward to trial by pride.

Bath: Tries Stevens, Beattie, Daniel; Conversions Barkley 2; Penalty Barkley. Bourgoin: Penalties Boyet 3; Drop goal Boyet.

Bath: C Malone; A Higgins, R Fleck (A Crockett, 80), M Tindall, B Daniel; O Barkley, N Walshe (M Wood, 66); D Barnes, L Mears, M Stevens (D Bell, 72), S Borthwick (capt), D Grewcock (R Fidler, 70), A Beattie (R Hawkins, 78-80), I Fea'unati (G Delve, 66), J Scaysbrook.

Bourgoin: A Forest; G Esterhuizen, G Davis, D Venditti, J-F Coux (L Soucaze, 60); B Boyet, M Forest (M Albina, 73); O Milloud, B Cabello, P Peyron (F Pucciariello, 60), A Mazel, P Papé, N Bontinck, P Raschi (capt), J Bonnaire.

Referee: R Dickson (Scotland).

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