MATT Stevens is delighted to be back among international rugby’s elite but insists he has no regrets about his decision to call time on his England career last summer.
The 30-year-old Saracens prop is the only player selected in Warren Gatland’s 37-man British & Irish Lions squad not currently playing Test rugby, after standing down from England duty with 44 caps to his name in August 2012.
But his form in helping Saracens reach the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup and Aviva Premiership meant he was always on Gatland’s radar and he as got the nod to go on his second Lions tour, having been part of the trip to New Zealand in 2005.
Selection is the latest chapter in Stevens’ remarkable rise from the low of the two-year drugs ban he received in 2009. But the South African-born forward does not expect to go back on his decision to make himself unavailable for England, whether Test honours lie ahead in Australia or not. “I am not thinking about that, it is just about this tour and I am relishing every minute of it,” said Stevens. “Any international player when they retire has second thoughts and it was the most difficult rugby decision I have ever made. But it was the right choice at the time. Obviously it has given me the chance to play week in, week out for Saracens and has got me in contention for this trip. It has been difficult but I didn’t retire because I didn’t think I was good enough, I retired because there were other things I needed to sort out to get back playing for Saracens.
“I had just come back from injury and it wasn’t fair on me playing a bit part for Stuart [Lancaster] when I thought I wasn’t going to be there for the World Cup in 2015.”
Stevens’ previous experience as a Lion came on the ill-fated tour of New Zealand under Sir Clive Woodward, in which the tourists suffered a 3-0 Test series defeat. Woodward was criticised for his decision to name a large initial party of 44 and to do away with the Lions tradition of players sharing rooms.
While Stevens refuses to speak ill of the organisation of the 2005 tour, he acknowledged he has already noticed some positive differences this time round. “I think 2005 was a wonderful experience for me at the time as I was a young player coming into the team. It was a disappointing tour overall but I learned a huge amount from it,” he said.
“I know from playing with Saracens and with better and worse England teams that it is really important to be tightly knit as a unit, to be brothers in arms as it were, and that is something Gats is trying to work on with all of us.
“All the boys are open to building firm connections, I also think the fact there are less players will help. Everyone will have to muck in.”