Drive is Stevens' X Factor

Matt Stevens has met Nelson Mandela and performed on television's X Factor since he last played rugby for England.

Matt Stevens has met Nelson Mandela and performed on television's X Factor since he last played rugby for England.

He even joined England's current South Africa tour squad by flying in on a private jet from Cape Town, but that celebrity lifestyle pales into insignificance compared with what awaits him this weekend.

Stevens lines up against the country of his birth tomorrow when England head into another damage-limitation exercise that will conclude an ill-fated and ludicrously planned trip.

The Durban-born prop might have been a Springbok by now had he not chosen to take up an English qualification made available through his paternal grandfather.

But the second Test at Loftus Versfeld - by Stevens' admission "probably the biggest game I have ever been involved in" - also represents a significant personal triumph.

The Bath prop underwent a shoulder reconstruction last year, requiring two operations amid genuine fears he might not play again.

While the Mandela appointment and finishing second behind EastEnders actress Lucy Benjamin on X Factor proved welcome distractions, none of it could detract from his sheer drive and ambition to pull on the white shirt again.

Stevens said: "Being out injured is a tough time for any rugby player. You are not able to do what you want to do, and for such a lengthy period you have to be quite mentally tough. To come back from it the way I have, I am very happy with the way things are going.

"Not playing again definitely went through my head and probably the surgeon's head as well. But after the second operation, it all seemed to be good and I went through some excellent rehabilitation with the Bath and England physios.

"I have played 11 games for Bath this season. The shoulder is feeling very good, and I am feeling very confident about it."

Stevens will buck the trend tomorrow as the one player from Bath, Leicester or Wasps involved in the two-Test series.

England head coach Brian Ashton opted to leave behind those clubs' sizeable England contingent because of European final commitments, but 24-year-old Stevens' proximity when Gloucester prop Nick Wood suffered a torn chest muscle in training made him an obvious squad addition. He added: "I was in Cape Town at my mum's house having a bit of lunch when I received the call. I was surprised, although I did have a nagging feeling it could happen if I was in South Africa.

"I would have been in Pretoria to watch the game on Saturday anyway. It was definitely in my plans to travel up and support the boys."

Although Ashton will not announce his starting line-up until this afternoon because of illness and injuries, Stevens is a shoo-in for the tighthead position, packing down alongside Kevin Yates and Mark Regan.

Meanwhile, uncapped London Irish wing Topsy Ojo yesterday became the latest player drafted into England's tour squad.

He will provide back-three cover, alongside fellow newcomer Nick Abendanon, the Bath full-back having flown in from London on Wednesday night as England continue to be affected by injuries and a stomach virus that has swept through the camp.


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