Steenson pushing for another Exeter upset


The walls of Gareth Steenson’s ‘Stand Off’ bar tell the story of his career. Reminders of growing up wanting to play for Ulster and his spell captaining Ireland Under-21s mark the first half of his journey; the second is dominated by the Exeter Chiefs.

Shirts from the 2009 playoff final, his first Premiership match and then his 150th game for the Chiefs sit alongside other mementos collected along the way, prompts from a career of one of the top flight’s finest fly-halves.

“It’s nice that you can look back at the good times and the guys you’ve played with and against,” Steenson tells ESPN. “It’s nice to sit there and reminisce.”

Players past and present pay a visit to his bar; the lure of Guinness on tap proves a constant attraction to his fellow Ulsterman Ian Whitten. But though he is approaching the stage of his career where the body is creaking a little more than usual, there’s no sign of him slowing down.

Steenson, 33, is set for his testimonial year next season, but has unfinished business as attention turns to Saturday’s Aviva Premiership semifinal against Saracens.

It all looked like it was going to plan for the young Steenson. He took the well-trodden path from Dungannon to the Ulster academy. He was a key figure in the Ireland Under-21 side that reached the 2004 Junior World Cup final alongside Jamie Heaslip and Tomas O’Leary. A year later he was their captain, and was starting ahead of Johnny Sexton.

But then came an afternoon in 2006 when then Ulster boss Mark McCall told him that his path to the province’s No.10 shirt was blocked by David Humphreys. He looked to England.

“I only wanted to play for Ulster and it was all geared around playing for the Ireland schoolboys and wanting to get a contract so I really never thought about any other way of going.

“But with David there, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for me there and if I wanted to pursue a career, I had to go across the water. It was a leap of faith going to Rotherham, it was the first time I had been away from home and it was a bit of an eye-opener but one that I look back on and say it was a good decision.”

From Rotherham, then a semi-professional outfit, came a move to the Cornish Pirates and after a year there, he moved north to the Chiefs, a switch which coincided with his father passing away.

“You get your name known a little more in the English game and I was fortunate to get picked up by Exeter and the club was looking to promotion and that was the drive of the place.”

Their promotion shot came in 2010 against out-and-out favourites Bristol. No one really fancied the men from Devon to upset the applecart but outsiders did not appreciate their bond.

Before the playoff final, the players and management vowed to one another that they’d be at the club the following season, regardless of promotion. So it was up to them whether they wanted to be Premiership players or spend another year in the Championship.

After winning the first leg 9-6 at Sandy Park, they went to the Memorial Ground and 24 points from Steenson steered Exeter into the Premiership.

No one gave them a hope of survival — but year-on-year they improved. First came qualification to the Heineken Cup in 2012 and then the LV=Cup final win followed in 2014. Last year they reached the Premiership final. But underpinning all of this, was the club learning and developing as one.

“I remember Rob [Baxter] getting the [head coach] job in my first year as he was forwards coach when I arrived and he was thrust into it really. Each year he has developed and it’s the same with [backs coach] Ali Hepher. We’ve got Ricky Pellow, the skills coach, and they’ve all been working together for such a long time and we all get better with experiences.

“Right across the board even the fellas who’ve been here longer, guys like Matt Jess and Tom Johnson, we’ve all had to grow as a group but if we move forward as a club then you have to individually as well.

“For me, I always thought it was going to get better year-on-year and with promotion, you have to up your game. So there were little goals and you gain more experience as you go along and for me personally, it’s been a great venture and I feel we’ve all got better year-on-year.”

Astute recruitment and utilising the academy, to bolster those who took the club into the top flight, also underpin their success.

Steenson remembers two young lads named Jack and Henry coming to watch them train when they were in the championship. They were soon thrown into preseason training and were joined by Luke and Sam.

“Some of the youngsters settled in quicker than others. Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Sam Hill did that, and Luke Cowan-Dickie caught up. Then you have guys like Jack Maunder, Stu Townsend and Joe Simmons who have come through this season. They are the future of the club but also the present.

“They bring a lot of enthusiasm with what they do and they have really bought into the culture and they’ve all grown up wanting to wear the Exeter shirt and I think that’s important.”

Exeter’s recruitment from outside the Devon pen has focused on proven winners — Geoff Parling, Thomas Waldrom and Julian Salvi — an Antipodean flavour — Dean Mumm and Lachie Turner have both been a great success — and players wanting to prove doubters wrong.

“There are a few guys here who were told they weren’t good enough for another club, but they’ve come here, they’ve bought into it and they’re playing really well and they’re getting international recognition.”

Ollie Devoto, Olly Woodburn and James Short have all had remarkable seasons for the Chiefs but the ever-present from 2008 through to now has been Steenson.

Win or lose on Saturday, Steenson and a good number of teammates will return back to his bar. They’ll take notice of the most recent addition to the haul of memorabilia — a Guinness driver.

In the future, this will be his place to remember a remarkable career. He’ll tell his boys Oscar and William about the time he was the top points scorer in the Premiership, the team he led as they laughed in the face of doubters and the culture he helped forge.

But that’s not yet on his radar, there’s life in those kicking boots yet. He has a further year on his contract but it is all about Saturday and then, hopefully, the final. The ‘Stand Off’ could be at capacity if they write yet another page into Exeter’s remarkable history.

“You have to take stock whenever you achieve something as a group,” Steenson said. “We’re very fortunate — we still feel we’re new at winning trophies, so our mantra of progression is to move forward. The one we can control is the Premiership so that’s the next progression for the club.

“We know Saracens are European and Premiership champions so there’s a lot of pressure on them. We’ve done everything we could do — we wanted to get a home semifinal and it was irrelevant who the opposition was. Our form is good so there’s no reason to fear anyone.

“We’re so fortunate to have our fans and the buzz around the game is huge. I remember the semifinal last year [against Wasps] was one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in front of, so hopefully we can replicate that.”