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Howley says Stevens case is a warning for Rugby

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Wales coach Rob Howley hopes Matt Stevens’s failed drugs test will keep other leading players on the straight and narrow, whatever the temptations of their increasingly high-profile status.


Stevens, 26, is facing a two-year ban after testing positive for a recreational drug, believed to be cocaine, following Bath’s Heineken Cup win over Glasgow on December 7.


The South Africa-born prop’s admission of a substance abuse problem on Tuesday was followed by a suspension from all competitions and his removal from England’s squad for the upcoming Six Nations on account of his positive test.


Stevens would have been in contention for this year’s British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, where former Wales scrum-half Howley will be the backs’ coach.


Howley, who admitted he was stunned when fellow Wales coach Neil Jenkins told him about the Bath forward’s fall from grace, said of Stevens: “He is an exceptional rugby player, a great talent.”


But Howley, speaking at a Sports Journalists’ Association event here on Wednesday, added: “Matt had a responsibility as a rugby player.


Unfortunately, the social side of drugs, his celebrity, got in the way.


“It just shows you have to be very mindful of the pitfalls the celebrity status brings when you are an international rugby player or football player or tennis player.”


The advent of professionalism has seen some modern day rugby players subjected to a degree of public scrutiny in the gossip columns, never mind the sports’ pages, of national newspapers unknown to their amateur forebears.


But while backroom staffs at club and national level have expanded greatly in the age of full-time rugby union squads, Howley said there was no escaping the ultimate responsibility of players for their own conduct.


“You can’t support players 24/7,” he said.


“Professional players are looked after and the management try to provide everything they can.


When they are in camp you are able to put things in place.


“But there will be a time when those players go back home and they have got a responsibility to themselves, to the squad, to the management and to their families.”


Australian dual code international Wendell Sailor has shown it is possible to return to competitive rugby following a drugs offence.


Sailor, banned for two years in 2006 after a positive test for cocaine, came back last year to play rugby league for Australian NRL side St George Illawarra.


Had Stevens stayed fit, he could have expected to be a first-team member of England’s squad at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.


But should he receive a two-year ban – the maximum sanction for a first-time offence – his hopes of making the next edition of rugby union’s showpiece event would be all but ended.


“When you read what Matt says I genuinely feel very sorry for him,” Howley said. “It is a social drug, it is a habit, an illness, an addiction.


“I am certain through the RFU (Rugby Football Union), through Bath and through his family he will have many supporters and hopefully he will get through these dark times and become a better person for it.


“It’s sad but, as he said, it’s irresponsible, isn’t it? He knows he’s probably done wrong.”


Sapa-AFP – Rugbyweek.com

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