Former England prop Matt Stevens was as surprised as anyone at being named in the British and Irish Lions squad to tour Australia on Tuesday, capping a roller-coaster career that has included singing, scrapping, drug bans and World Cups.
The 30-year-old was expected to be included in the last Lions tour to South Africa four years ago, but his career looked over after he was given a two-year ban in early 2009 when he tested positive for cocaine after a match for English club Bath.
Out of work during his suspension, South Africa-born Stevens worked in a coffee shop, part of a new business with old teammate Lee Mears, and also took up the Brazilian martial art of jiujitsu, competing in the world championships in the US.
After “getting his arse handed to him” at the highest level of jiujitsu, Stevens returned to his first love and joined Saracens on the conclusion of his ban.
His displays helped him regain a spot in the England squad, but he struggled to maintain a starting place, with the last of his 44 caps coming against Ireland in the 2012 Six Nations.
He quit the international fold in August last year, happy with his lot having played in two World Cups and in the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand, but on Tuesday he was back reveling at achieving the pinnacle for a rugby player from the home nations.
“I was watching Twitter as I’m sure a lot of people were, feeling very nervous as the squad was named and when I first saw my name I suppose my first reaction was one of shock. It still hasn’t really sunk in,” Stevens was quoted as saying by British media.
Stevens’ versatility — he can play loosehead and tighthead prop — is thought to have earned his selection by Lions coach Warren Gatland over Ireland’s Mike Ross or Scot Euan Murray.
All are talented enough to start the first Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane on June 22, but with a seven-week, 10 match-tour with plenty of travel, personalities are often as important as power.
Stevens’ charisma shined through when he finished as the runner-up on British television singing show X Factor in 2006, winning over fans with his crooning abilities as he raised ￡125,000 (US$194,500) for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.
The television exposure and adoration brought about a tinge of arrogance to t he player, but after the humbling drugs ban his feet are firmly on the floor.
“It made me slightly more considered and reserved about certain situations,” the prop said just prior to his return to the game.
Stevens had not been mentioned as a possible candidate to take part in the tour prior to Tuesday’s announcement, with many instead tipping former England international Jonny Wilkinson as a necessary inclusion.
However, the flyhalf ruled himself out of the tour, but said he could feature as an injury replacement if he is fit enough at the end of the club season.
Wilkinson’s impressive display in kicking all of Toulon’s points in their 24-12 victory over Saracens in Sunday’s Heineken Cup semi-final launched widespread speculation that he would be called up for a third Lions tour.
Lions coach Warren Gatland named Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton as his only two flyhalves in his squad on Tuesday and told reporters that Wilkinson was committed to Toulon and would not be able to travel with the squad.
The French Top 14 final takes place on the same day as the Lions play the Barbarians in Hong Kong in their opening game on June 1 and Wilkinson’s Toulon team are likely to be involved.
“I was phenomenally proud to be considered for the Lions, so it’s very disappointing that I’m unavailable,” Wilkinson told the Times newspaper. “If Toulon manage to get through to the final of the Top 14, my absolute priority lies with them and helping to get the best out of a team that has been so good to me for so long. It is, after all, these guys who have got me to the stage where I could even be considered for the Lions.”