As an unconscious Brad Barritt dropped to the bottom of the Kearsney College swimming pool in Durban, Matt Stevens leapt in and pulled the future Saracens talisman out of the water where he was revived. The pair would go on to to become international rugby teammates, joining forces at Sarries, England and the British and Irish Lions on their victorious 2013 tour of Australia.

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With Barritt now preparing to play his 263rd and final match for Saracens on Sunday against Bath at Allianz Park, Stevens, the pal who saved his life, has paid tribute to a player whose remarkable twelve-year career in London delivered five Gallagher Premiership titles and three European Champions Cup triumphs.

The 44-cap ex-England prop can’t remember if he was refereeing the water polo match or watching as a poolside spectator that fateful day at boarding school in Outer West Durban, but Stevens recalled seeing Barritt sinking after getting struck in the head. 

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“It’s a true story. I think I was reffing, he was sinking to the bottom and I jumped in,” said Stevens to RugbyPass from his home in Franschhoek. “Water polo is a violent sport and you have a pass to do anything you want underwater. It was a practice game and they are often more violent. We have formed a very close friendship having known each other since he was ten-years-old and it was great to be on the Lions tour to Australia  in 2013 with Brad.”

Stevens, who turned 38 on October 1, remains the most capped Kearsney player in the history of the South African school, playing in the 1st XV for four seasons and captaining them in 2000 and 2001. At school he was selected for Craven week, SA Academy U18 (captain) and SA U19, and would then reach the final of ITV’s Celebrity X-Factor after being school head of choir. 

Barritt, the 34-year-old who won 26 England caps while at Saracens, was an all-rounder at Kearsney, playing first-team cricket and rugby, becoming captain and operating at hooker until U15 level. He was selected for Craven week, SA Schools and Sharks U19, playing at Super Rugby and Currie Cup level for the Durban franchise before joining Saracens in 2008.

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Barritt, who has a young family, could opt to continue his playing career with the Sharks in Durban. However, having completed a masters in business management at the University of Hertfordshire, he has launched his own coffee brand, Tiki Tonga, which is the official coffee supplier to Tottenham Hotspur and he has shops in Johannesburg and Durban.

Stevens suggested that the midfielder’s unique skills underpinned the London club’s rise to the top of European rugby, a journey that ended with last Saturday’s semi-final defeat in Paris against Racing 92. “Brad is easily the most consistently good player that I ever played with and he did that when he was playing under Steve Borthwick at Sarries and then as captain. He is a very intelligent man and was constantly working to improve.

“He has this extreme competitiveness and was always driven to make the team better. I love him as a man and friend and it was always glorious to have him in the No12 jersey. I know his superb defence is highlighted but he is also a very good attacker.

“Brad played out-half for the Sharks before coming to Saracens and has all the skills. If you try and tackle Brad then it is like trying to halt a front row and he also has really good pace.”

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