By Ian Cole
Rob Howley, assistant coach to Wales and this summer’s British and Irish Lions squad, believes that Matt Stevens can return to top-flight rugby after serving his ban for failing a drugs test.
Stevens, the Bath and England prop forward, has admitted recreational use of a substance, believed to be cocaine, and faces a two-year ban from the game.
Howley, kicking off the SJAâ€™s season of topical sporting lunches on the day Stevensâ€™ name was splashed across the back pages, said the case highlighted the responsibility the sportâ€™s stars have to the game itself and their clubs â€“ as well as to themselves and their families.
Speaking at the SJA lunch at the Old Bank of England pub in Fleet Street, Howley, who won 59 caps for Wales at scrum half, played on two Lions tours and is now Walesâ€™ backs coach under Warren Gatland, said he understood the pressures a celebrity player like Stevens could be under.
“Itâ€™s sad and I genuinely feel very sorry for Matt Stevens,” said Howley. “But he has been irresponsible.”
â€œBut players have a responsibility to their squad as well as to their families,â€ he said. â€œMatt had a responsibility as a rugby player and an international sports star. Unfortunately, the social side of drugs and his celebrity got in the way.
â€œWith Matt, he says drugs are an illness, an addiction. But I know that through Bath and through his family he will have supporters and he will hopefully come through it.â€
Howley has experience of the celebrity rugby star in the Welsh squad in the shape of Gavin Henson, who became a showbiz item through his marriage to singer and TV chat show host Charlotte Church. But Howley insisted that Henson is handling his high profile: â€œGavin is an easy target for the critics, but he is a top guy. Heâ€™s a very good professional, does his homework well on the opposition and has valuable input within the squad.
â€œGavin just needs to keep fit and play rugby to the best of his ability.â€
Wales begin their defence of the RBS 6 Nations’ Championship against Scotland at Murrayfield on February 8. Six days later, on St Valentineâ€™s Day, comes the clash with England at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
While England had a disappointing autumn series of matches against the southern hemisphere sides, Howley is well aware of the dangers lurking within Martin Johnsonâ€™s squad.
He said: â€œEngland have a lot of talent throughout the squad and when that talent all comes together they are a formidable force. Their autumn results were disappointing considering the amount of possession and territorial position they achieved. That must be the frustrating part for England.
â€œBut you only have to remember the first 40 minutes of their game against us at Twickenham last year to be reminded of what they are capable of.â€
Howley came to the lunch with a gift from the Welsh Rugby Unionâ€™s marketing department of two corporate packages for the Wales-England game, each ticket worth at least Â£500.
The prize consisted of pre-match hospitality in the Championsâ€™ Suite and Restaurant, with champagne and wines, guest speaker, complimentary programme and a gift, topped off with seats for the match on the halfway line.
Howley was asked by SJA chairman, Barry Newcombe, to choose the best question from the lunchtime inquisition, but the Wales great sidestepped that task and instead oversaw a draw among the diners present.
The prize appropriately went to that son of the Valleys, freelance rugby writer Dai Llewellyn.
The SJA’s lunches regularly deliver backpage headline-grabbing stories. The next SJA working lunch is on Jan 29, with darts world champion Phil Taylor. Click here for more details.
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