The Sharks expect former England prop Matt Stevens to make a major impact when he returns to Durban in August, writes MIKE GREENAWAY.
One of Sharks CEO John Smit’s endearing memories at English club Saracens was relaxing with a beer in a victorious team bus while hearing Matt Stevens boom out his rendition of ‘My Way’, the Frank Sinatra classic, from the mic at the front of the bus.
That is Matt Stevens: British & Irish Lion, England international, Kearsney College Old Boy and a larger-than-life entertainer who landed the runners-up prize in the massively popular English TV show, X Factor Battle of the Stars, steered by uber celebrity Simon Cowell.
The 31-year-old is also a reformed drug user and served a two-year ban from rugby after testing positive for cocaine in 2009 when playing for Bath. But for the roly-poly Stevens, that hiccup was just part of life’s great pageant. He took it on the chin, moved on and became a popular figure at Saracens, the club heavily populated by South Africans, including his boss in the making, John Smit. Stevens resurrected his England career and went on to feature for the Lions in their successful 2013 tour of Australia.
Stevens left Durban not long after finishing school in Botha’s Hill, west of Durban, and played 44 times for England, including the 2007 World Cup final against the Boks in Paris. He toured with the British & Irish Lions in 2005 and 2013, although he did not win a Test cap.
Off the field, he became a household name in England when his baritone singing voice and colourful personality took him to the final of Cowell’s show, raising £125 000 in the process for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.
The 122kg Stevens holds a BSc in politics and economics from the University of Bath.
And it is for all these reasons that Smit decided to bring Stevens back to his native Durban to play an inspirational role in the 2014 Currie Cup, on a two-year deal that will include Super Rugby. He is due to join the Sharks at the beginning of August.
‘I loved playing with Matt, not just because he was such a fine scrummager but also because he adds so much to the team environment,’ Smit says. ‘I was a big believer in bringing him here [when Smit knew he would take over from CEO Brian van Zyl at the Sharks].
‘He could have earned a lot more elsewhere but I could make him see that he could make a major impact in the city and country of his birth. He could have carried on being among the top three earners in European rugby for the next few years but decided this was the right time for him to give something back to rugby while casting an eye on business opportunities in South Africa, where his father is a mover and shaker in the hotel industry.’
Smit says that purely from a technical rugby point of view, Stevens has few peers in his ability to dominate the tighthead, control the right shoulder, plus steal ball.
‘He is an accurate player,’ Smit says. ‘He has come through the rigid forward systems that make northern hemisphere forward play so great. He does not make mistakes. He played for a long time in an arena where forward play is very tough indeed [2002 to 2014 at clubs Bath and Saracens].
‘We would not have had someone remotely close to him to mentor our guys in the Currie Cup squad and set the example up front. And remember, this year we will be without all our Springboks [Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira].
As for his fall from grace when the partying got a touch hectic at Bath, Smit reflects: ‘He paid the price and kept his head up high. He was just becoming a champion and it changed his life. Time changes a lot of people and he accepted his lot without complaint; he is happy to warn others of the pitfalls that are out there. He is a great guy who deserves respect for how he has come back [from a two-year ban from rugby].’
JAKE WHITE ON STEVENS …
‘The Sharks have a tradition of bringing in a colourful overseas player to boost their Currie Cup campaign and in 2014 we hope to do the same with Matt Stevens. The Sharks did well with their Frenchmen – Olivier Roumat in 1995 and Thierry Lacroix in 1996 – as well as New Zealander Tony Brown a decade later. John Smit has had the wisdom and belief that Matt can be the 2014 “import” and make a similar impact.
‘This is a guy who went to school at Kearsney in Durban and played for Bath, Saracens, England and the British & Irish Lions. But he has never played Currie Cup, and it is something he got excited about as a young boy, watching the likes of Lacroix and Roumat.
‘Matt would love to fulfil a similar role, and we are delighted that he wants to take on that senior role with young guys such as Dale Chadwick and Thomas du Toit. They will learn heaps from a senior player who is so skilled in the art of northern hemisphere scrumming play.
‘When I was the SA U21 coach, Matt was a junior in my squad but it was not his time and he was behind Gurthrö Steenkamp. Now he has the chance to end his career in a domestic competition he loved as a child. He understands the significance of the Currie Cup and wants to end his career having made a contribution to it.
‘He comes from a very proud Durban family and his dad wants to get him involved in the family business. We are getting a positive guy who has a number of reasons to want to be back in the city of his birth.
‘His past is his past, in terms of his ban, but he put that all behind him when Saracens took him on. He found himself and has grown enormously as a person. We have a new programme at the Sharks called “Impact”, which is about assisting youngsters, and who better to mentor it?’
– This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine