It comes as quite a shock to Matt Stevens – one of the few Lions living in South Africa – that the 2021 squad are training just up the road from his holiday home in Hermanus.
‘I had no idea they were going to be here,’ said the former Bath, Saracens and England prop, on a scenic stroll towards the centre of the popular whale-watching town. ‘I’ll have to go and spy on them now! I’ll take my boots and hang around near the gate, just in case!’
Stevens is still only 38, but he stopped playing for England nine years ago and retired fully in 2016. He returned to his homeland and his family’s roots in the hospitality trade, as general manager at Boschendal wine farm in Franschhoek, east of Cape Town, before COVID came and he resigned last year, to deal with various pressing business arrangements following the death of his father.
Ex-Lion Matt Stevens is now living in his birthplace of South Africa following his retirement
For a while, he struggled with the transition into life as an ex-player.
‘No matter how prepared you think you are, you’ve basically got to re-qualify yourself to be part of the normal world,’ he said. ‘That was quite daunting for me. That period after professional sport is one where mental health comes into it and how you look after yourself.
‘You are so used to a routine. Once you come out, you think you’ve got this massive long holiday and you don’t have that routine or structure, so it just becomes overwhelming. You have to motivate yourself because it’s very easy to just stay in bed. It was a struggle for me. I went through this process of not really understanding my worth and what I’d be good at.’
Stevens has used meditation as a remedy which works for him, despite admitting to being ‘freaked out’ by the sort of spirituality and wellness principles advocated by his mother when he was growing up in Durban. Now, he understands it, albeit as someone who still applies a cynic’s filter.
The sport which was once his life is now something that he has become quite detached from. ‘I have tuned out of rugby really,’ said Stevens. ‘But obviously the Lions is very special for me because I was a Lion, so I won’t be tuning out of this series! I’ve had a bit of a sports detox. I didn’t want to be a coach or a pundit or whatever, so I didn’t have to stay hooked into it.’
He is hooked now, as someone with an insight into both the Springboks and the Lions camps. First and foremost, he is full of admiration for the selfless commitment being shown by Warren Gatland’s COVID-stalked tourists.
‘What the players are putting themselves through now is a big sacrifice for the Lions brand,’ he said. ‘It isn’t a lot of fun and hats off to them because it looks like they are doing it without complaint. The sacrifice they are making is for the good of the Lions going forward.’
Stevens has used meditation as a remedy after retiring from professional sport in 2016
Stevens is full of admiration for Warren Gatland’s ‘selfless’ side and the sacrifices they’ve made
So could he have put himself through weeks in a strict bubble? ‘Good question,’ he added. ‘I don’t know. I’ve been amazed by what they’re doing. I really struggled being away from my family for long periods of time.’
Stevens was selected for two Lions tours. He went to New Zealand as a rookie in 2005 and he went to Australia as a veteran in 2013. He has kept all the shirts and has some of them framed, such as the one from his debut, against Bay of Plenty. That first British and Irish crusade transformed his career.
‘I learned more about being a professional player on that tour than I had done all the way up to that point,’ he said. ‘I was the youngest player and guys like Brian O’Driscoll would sit and talk to me for an hour-and-a-half. It wasn’t even about the training – it was about being comfortable around giants and not being too shy the next time you played against them. It gave you a bit of street-cred.’
He didn’t play a Test for the Lions and feels his best chance of earning a cap should have been in 2009, on the last tour of South Africa. But he missed out on what would have been a home-coming highlight due to what he jokingly refers to as his ‘sabbatical’ – a two-year ban for cocaine use.
Even now, there is evident emotion as Stevens recounts that turbulent period. ‘It was unbelievably hard for me to watch that series,’ he said. ‘But this is nice, right… I was helping to organise social outings for the squad, through Lee Mears. I was so embarrassed, obviously, that I wouldn’t get out of the car and come into the hotel to see the players. They heard about this so they all came out of the hotel and said, “Come on, get out of the car, you’re one of us, you’re our boy”.
‘After my ban, I basically holed up in my house for two months. I felt like a pariah, but the rugby community never treated me that way. I remember distinctly, going to watch the Lions Test in my home town, Durban. I was walking up the walkway to the stand and I was s***ting myself that some Lions fans were going to recognise me and give me stick because I felt like a pariah. But they just started chanting my name.
The 38-year-old was selected for two Lions tours in 2005 and 2013 but never played a Test
Stevens pictured with his wife India and daughters Ava and Coco, who both supported England during the 2019 World Cup
‘It was incredible. I was filled with such humility. They completely didn’t judge me and they saw me as one of them. They didn’t hold anything against me, when they could have. It was just a sea of red shirts and people were hugging me and tapping me on the back. I had tears in my eyes.’
That is one side of Stevens; the Lion who was taken to British and Irish hearts. But the other side is Stevens the South African, who knows about the forces driving on the Springboks. He and his family; wife India and their multi-talented 10-year-old twin daughters, Ava and Coco, are happily settled in Cape Town and embracing the outdoor lifestyle, while grappling with divided sporting loyalties.
‘I was at Boschendal and it was my daughters’ birthday when the last World Cup Final was on,’ he said. ‘I had a load of the staff and parents from the area round that day. I don’t know what I was doing, inviting all these people round!
‘They absolutely loved it because they got to rib me. My girls supported England and I supported England. Instead of just dropping their kids off, all the parents stayed and wanted to talk to me. They were all asking, “How do you feel?”!’
As part of the England team which lost the 2007 World Cup Final to South Africa, Stevens felt aggrieved when told by the conquering opposition that they were playing for a higher cause. But he does understand that potent factor, which will galvanise home captain Siya Kolisi and his team-mates as they seek to fight back from a 1-0 series deficit.
It is a complex backdrop here. In the Eighties, his mother picketed against the Springboks and was ‘appalled’ that he was taking up rugby, which was seen as a symbol of the Apartheid regime. Then in 1995, Stevens was struck by the rare vision of people from all races coming together to celebrate South Africa’s World Cup triumph. ‘You had black and white people hugging each other,’ he said. ‘It was quite dystopian in a way – it didn’t look like reality.’
He is glad to see how the Boks have become a multi-racial symbol of the country. Having written a university dissertation on ‘affirmative action’ in South African rugby, he appreciates how there has been a drive to open up the game and enhance the national team in the process.
The Lions will be up against a side on a mission to unify and to heal their country. ‘Rugby in South Africa is always important, especially now, given the state of the country, with civil war in Kwazulu Natal,’ said Stevens. ‘Hopefully, what it can do – and it has been miraculous in doing this before – is tie a nation together with a common bond.
But he knows all about the forces driving the Springboks and believes they will take the series down the wire
Stevens is glad to see how the Boks have become a multi-racial symbol of the country
‘The Springbok team, from the World Cup to now, is such a good advert for the athletic prowess of the major group in this country; black and mixed-race people. That team made people feel proud to be South Africans – and a lot of the time people don’t feel proud to be South Africans because of the issues we have in this country; the poverty, the clash of races and the crime.
‘All you hear in the media, unless they are talking about rugby or cricket, is that 35 per cent of South Africans are unemployed and we have the highest crime rate in the world. That’s all you hear. So people here like to hear about sporting success. They are proud that they punch above their weight and that they live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
‘Everything else is pretty s*** for a lot of people. It’s great for guys like me and people who live in places like Hermanus and Franschhoek and Cape Town or the Western Cape in general. If you are white, or rich and black or coloured then you are doing well, but 90 per cent of the population is struggling. This one thing binds us and the Springbok players will be talking about that.’
Before the first Test, Stevens could see the series going down to the wire and what happened on Saturday suggests his crystal ball is in good working order. ‘Warren Gatland is a clever guy and just knows how to win Test matches,’ he said. ‘So I think the Lions will win the first Test, the Springboks will win the second, then it will be a hum-dinger.’