Stevens set for emotional return
August 4, 2011
Stevens shone in the 2011 Churchill Cup for the England Saxons © Getty Images
Matt Stevens looks set to complete a remarkable year by being named in the England side to face Wales on Saturday.
Stevens has not represented England since November 2008 - soon after which he tested positive for cocaine and was banned from all rugby for two years. Now 28, Stevens reflects on the suspension as the best thing that could have happened to him. He returned to the sport at the start of 2011 having shed his demons and his superstitions.
Supported by a new family, including twin daughters, Stevens has a new healthy perspective on life - and on the field things could not have gone any better. Stevens helped Saracens win the Aviva Premiership and is today expected to be confirmed in the England line-up to face Wales in the first of three World Cup warm-up Tests.
It will be a special moment.
"Given all the circumstances surrounding my comeback and how special a time it has been for me with my club and my family at home - there is more to celebrate if that were the case," said Stevens.
"I have played for England before and I know the honour that it is and I know the incredible feeling that it is to run out at Twickenham or anywhere in the world. It is a fantastic experience and one I hope to have again."
The England team is set to be captained by Lewis Moody, who missed the Six Nations title triumph with knee ligament damage, while Delon Armitage is in line to start at fullback. The uncapped trio of Manu Tuilagi, Charlie Sharples and Mouritz Botha all have strong selection claims after impressing manager Martin Johnson in training.
Johnson has retained seven props in his 40-man preparation squad and so Saturday's game represents a major opportunity for Stevens to press his World Cup claims. Stevens sees himself primarily as a tight-head prop but he played loose-head for Saracens - and that versatility will count for a great deal when Johnson trims his squad down to the final 30 for the World Cup.
"I am happy to play wherever I get picked for England," said Stevens.
England defence coach Mike Ford revealed the squad are desperate to see some competitive action. "This is the preparation we want," said Ford. "Wales won't do what they did four years ago and send a third team to Twickenham. We have been together six weeks now and we are ready for a game."
England have focused on adding another level to their game after Scotland and, with greater effect, Ireland exposed some weaknesses at the back end of the Six Nations. Ford is eager to see the training ground work put into practice.
"Over the last two years, the evolution of the team has gone from playing not that attractive football and defending to playing some good football," said Ford. "We have gone from one end of the spectrum to the other.
"Now we need to be able to play both types, to react to the situation. And we can do that. We have learned from the Scotland game and we have learned from the Dublin game. It is about having the an environment where the players have the courage to play if it is the right time. We have been focusing on since Dublin."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September