It comes as a shock to Matt Stevens – one of the few Lions living in South Africa – that the 2021 squad is training near his Hermanus holiday home.
‘I had no idea they’d be here,’ said the former gag of Bath, Saracens and England, during a scenic walk into the center of the popular whale-watching town. ‘I have to spy on them now! I’ll grab my boots and hang out by the gate, just in case!’
Stevens is only 38, but he stopped playing for England nine years ago and fully retired in 2016. He returned to his homeland and his family’s roots in the hospitality industry, as general manager at Boschendal wine farm in Franschhoek, east of Cape Town, before COVID came and he resigned last year to make several urgent business arrangements following his father’s death. to deal with.
Ex-Lion Matt Stevens now lives in his hometown of South Africa after retiring
Stevens went on two Lions tours – the 2005 trip to New Zealand and Australia in 2013 (pictured)
For a while he struggled with the transition to life as an ex-player.
“No matter how prepared you think you are, you basically have to requalify yourself to be part of the normal world,” he said. ‘That really disappointed me. That period after professional sports is one that involves mental health and how to take care of yourself.
“You’re so used to a routine. Once you come out you think you’re on a huge long vacation and you don’t have that routine or structure so it just gets 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 where I didn’t really understand what I was worth and what I would be good at.’
Stevens has used meditation as a remedy that works for him, despite admitting that he was “paniced” by the kind of spirituality and wellbeing principles his mother advocated growing up in Durban. Now he understands, albeit as someone who still applies a cynic’s filter.
The sport that was once his life is now something he has become quite distant from. “I’m really out of rugby,” Stevens said.
“But of course the Lions is very special to me because I was a lion, so I won’t disappear from this series! I’ve been on a bit of a sports detox. I didn’t want to be a coach or an expert or anything, so I didn’t have to stay addicted to it.’
He is now hooked, as someone with an understanding of both the Springboks and the Lions camps. First and foremost, he is full of admiration for the selfless commitment displayed by Warren Gatland’s COVID-stalked tourists.
“What the players are doing to themselves now is a big sacrifice for the Lions brand,” he said. “It’s not very nice and hats off to them because it seems they are doing it without complaining. The sacrifice they make is for the good of the Lions in the future.”
Stevens has used meditation as a remedy after he retired from professional sports in 2016
So would he have put himself in a strict bubble for weeks? “Good question,” he added. ‘I do not know. I am amazed at what they do. I really struggled with being away from my family for a long time.’
Stevens was selected for two Lions tours. He went to New Zealand as a rookie in 2005 and to Australia as a veteran in 2013. He kept all the shirts and framed some, like the one from his debut, against Bay of Plenty. That first British and Irish crusade changed his career.
“I learned more about being a professional player on that tour than I had until then,” he said.
“I was the youngest player and guys like Brian O’Driscoll were talking to me for an hour and a half. It wasn’t even about the training – it was about being comfortable with giants and not being too shy the next time you played against them. It gave you a bit of a street credo.’
Stevens is full of admiration for the ‘selfless’ side of Warren Gatland and the sacrifices they have made
He did not play a Test for the Lions and believes his best shot at capping should have come in 2009, on the last tour of South Africa. But he missed what would have been a homecoming highlight because of what he jokingly calls his “sabbatical” — a two-year ban on cocaine use.
Even now there is clearly emotion when Stevens talks about that turbulent period. “It was incredibly difficult for me to watch that series,” he said.
“But this is fun, isn’t it… I helped organize social outings for the team, through Lee Mears. Of course I was so ashamed that I didn’t get out of the car and went to 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 was actually in my house for two months. I felt like a pariah, but the rugby community never treated me that way. I clearly remember going to watch the Lions Test in my hometown, Durban. I walked up the walkway to the grandstand and I fooled myself that some Lions fans would recognize me and give me a stick because I felt like a pariah. But they just started chanting my name.
The 38-year-old was selected for two Lions tours but never played a test match
Stevens – pictured with his wife India and daughters Ava and Coco – who both supported England during the 2019 World Cup
‘It was unbelievable. I was filled with such humility. They didn’t judge me at all and they saw me as one of them. They had nothing against me, when they could have. It was just a sea of red shirts and people hugged and patted me on the back. I had tears in my eyes.’
That’s one side of Stevens; the lion that was taken to British and Irish hearts. But the other side is Stevens the South African, who knows about the powers that ride 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, embracing the outdoor lifestyle, while grappling with divided sporting loyalties.
“I was in Boschendal and it was my daughters birthday when the last World Cup final took place,” he said. ‘I had a lot of staff and parents from the area that day. I don’t know what I was doing, inviting all these people!
‘They absolutely loved it, because they were allowed to give me a rib. My girls supported England and I supported England. Instead of just dropping off their kids, all the parents stayed and wanted to talk to me. They all asked, ‘How are you feeling?’!
But he knows all about the forces that power the Springboks and believes they will bring the series to a successful conclusion
As part of the England team that lost the 2007 World Cup final to South Africa, Stevens felt mortified when the victorious opposition told him they were playing for a bigger goal. But he does understand that powerful factor, which will encourage home captain Siya Kolisi and his team-mates to fight back from a 1-0 deficit.
It’s a complex background here. His mother picked the Springboks in the 1980s and was “appalled” that he took up rugby, which was seen as a symbol of the apartheid regime. Then, in 1995, Stevens was struck by the rare vision of people of all races coming together to celebrate the World Cup victory in South Africa. “You had black and white people hugging each other,” he said. “It was kind of dystopian in a way—it didn’t resemble reality.”
He is happy to see how the Boks have become a multiracial symbol of the country. Having written a university dissertation on ‘positive action’ in South African rugby, he appreciates how there has been a drive to open up the game and strengthen the national team in the process.
Stevens is happy to see how the Boks have become a multiracial symbol of the country
The Lions will face off against a faction on a mission to unite and heal their nation. “Rugby in South Africa is always important, especially now, given the state of the country, with the civil war in Kwazulu Natal,” says Stevens. “Hopefully it can – and it has been miraculous to do this before – is to bind a nation together with a common bond.
“The Springbok team, from the World Cup to now, is such a good advertisement for the athletic prowess of the large group in this country; black and mixed people. That team made people proud to be South Africans – and often people don’t feel proud to be South Africans because of the problems we have in this country; poverty, the clash of races and crime.
“All you hear in the media, unless they’re talking about rugby or cricket, is that 35 percent 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 athletic success. They pride themselves on being above their weight and living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
“Everything else is pretty shitty to 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’re white, or rich and black or colored, you’re doing well, but 90 percent of the population has a hard time. This one thing binds us and that’s what the Springbok players will be talking about.’
For the first test, Stevens could see the series coming to an end and what happened on Saturday suggests his crystal ball is in good working order. “Warren Gatland is a smart guy and just knows how to win test matches,” he said.
“So I think the Lions will win the first Test, the Springboks the second, and then it’ll be some posturing.”