Shamed Stevens overshadows Bath —Toulouse clash

WHATEVER Bath might achieve against French champions Toulouse on Sunday, sadly there is only one story in town.

Victory over the three-time Heineken Cup winners would secure Bath a quarter-final place – probably at home – in April.

But as a clearly exasperated Bath chief executive Bob Calleja admitted to the media in the Recreation Ground clubhouse yesterday: “The headlines have been dominated by Matt Stevens.”

And that will continue to be the case for a while yet.

Stevens’ very public confession that he had failed a drugs test, has a drugs problem and was seeking counselling sent shock waves through the sport.

It does not really matter what the 26-year-old Bath tighthead prop has already achieved in life – Lions selection, England honours, acclaimed charity work – he has now reached a crossroads.

The good news is, according to his frank televised interview, Stevens recognises he has a problem and has started to do something about it. There will also be considerable support from within the game on a long road to recovery and redemption.

Stevens is a gregarious character who has many friends, and those friends of the true variety need to stand by him as he pieces things back together.

Bath captain Michael Lipman set a positive tone ahead of the Toulouse showdown, stating: “He is a dear friend and I am sorry to see him like this. We will help him get through this, that is the feeling in the camp. This is a very tight squad and the boys will stick together.

“We will take the good times, the bad times and the even worse times and see them through.”

Admirable words from the skipper, and the kind of language that should lift Stevens by the bootlaces as he aims to rid himself of a scourge that has already inflicted immeasurable damage.

Stevens is likely to be dealt with by the rugby authorities sooner, rather than later, with a two-year ban possible. If that scenario unfolds, how should his employers react? Stevens is a quarter of the way through a four-year contract with Bath worth somewhere between £600,000 and £800,000.

It is big money for a big player, but quite what Bath’s biggest player of all — their multi-millionaire backer Andrew Brownsword – makes of this sorry episode is anyone’s guess.

My view is he will observe events from his palatial home high above the Georgian city, and then tackle them with the seriousness they warrant.

Calleja, to all intents and purposes, is Brownsword’s mouthpiece on the ground.

And when he uses vocabulary like “let down,” “responsibility,” “absolutely shocked” and “devastating news,” you kind of know the man in the mansion would concur.

Bath have every right to be totally hacked off with one of their best players. As Calleja readily points out, the club has enough on its plate at the moment.

Toulouse are about to swagger into town, while there is the unbelievably complex issue of Recreation Ground development that continues to tie everyone involved in suffocating red tape to such an extent that sharing with Swindon Town FC next season remains a probable outcome.

Calleja struggled to contain his anger when he addressed the media about Stevens. Eleven years ago this month, some of Calleja’s predecessors were also embroiled in dealing with controversy.

On that occasion, it was the infamous ear-biting episode that happened during a game between Bath and London Scottish which ultimately led to prop Kevin Yates receiving a six-month ban from the RFU.

Yates always denied his involvement. Bath, for their part, made a pig’s ear of dealing with it. This was uncharted territory, and the club got spectacularly lost.

The Stevens affair demands clear, concise action, and the early signs from Bath suggest they are dealing with it in a thoroughly professional manner.

Stevens’ fate in terms of any suspension will, it appears, be decided by an independent judicial committee, with matters currently in the hands of ERC following his positive test after a Heineken Cup game last month.

But the onus is also on Bath do to what they have to do. In the event of a lengthy ban for Stevens, do they show him the door or stand by him?

Surely though, when you command a healthy six-figure salary but cannot possibly justify your income due to a prolonged period of inactivity, you become an expensive luxury.

Will it be head or heart that rules at the Recreation Ground?

Either way, it’s headlines, more headlines....

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