Thursday 27 April 2017

Steenson: I have spent my entire career proving people wrong

Gareth Steenson:
Gareth Steenson: "I was maybe just sitting back hoping that one day it would happen instead of going out and achieving it. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It was a decision that an increasing amount of young Irish players are faced with nowadays and when Gareth Steenson made the 'leap of faith' 10 years ago, he didn't think twice about it.

His reputation had been forged with Ulster's underage sides and later with the Ireland U-21s who were beaten in the World Championship by New Zealand in 2004.

A year later, he retained his place in the starting XV at the expense of a certain Johnny Sexton but his career path soon hit a stumbling block when he wasn't offered a contract with Ulster after his time in the Academy finished.

The rate at which provinces are producing young talent means that the once road less travelled is now becoming a more popular route.

With David Humphreys and Paddy Wallace both firmly established ahead of him, Steenson decided to seek opportunities in England, but it wasn't without risk, as he recalls.

"I remember jumping in the car and getting the boat. I hadn't a clue where I was going. I didn't have a Sat Nav. I had printed off the route planner. I took a leap of faith and off I went.

"I didn't know anything about the Championship. I knew very little about the club that I was joining but they were brilliant. They made me grow up."

Steenson was forced to do a lot of growing up when he joined Rotherham in 2006 and although some of the lessons learned along the way were harsh, they were very much heeded.

"Of course, it was disappointing," he admits. "I was a 20-year-old kid. You're playing for and captaining these teams. Maybe I was too complacent with it.

"I just needed a few harsh lessons. I was maybe just sitting back hoping that one day it would happen instead of going out and achieving it. It's something that I really had to learn."

A season with Cornish Pirates followed his time with Rotherham and it was in Cornwall that he began to recapture the kind of form that he had displayed in earlier years.

Now in his eighth season with Exeter Chiefs, Steenson is club captain and is relishing the added responsibility.

This evening his young family get the chance to return to his native Dungannon and make the short trip to Ravenhill to watch Exeter attempt to revive their Champions Cup campaign.

"When I joined, we were very much told 'you're always going to be second best - Exeter Chiefs are a good club but you're not going to get promoted," Steenson recalls.

"Then we did get promoted, people said we were going to get relegated. We stayed up and then it was 'oh you'll never make the Heineken Cup'. We made the Heineken Cup. So it's always had that kind of feel to it.

"I can honestly say that my whole career has been based around proving people wrong.

"If we're being honest, the way we've started the season, we've probably got a slight hangover from that success.

"We have taken that step and we've played in a Premiership final. But we haven't won anything, and there's a realisation now about what is needed."

At 32, Steenson realises that his chances of winning a full Irish cap are slim but he will never close the door on the possibility of a call-up.

And he doesn't want to see young Irish players denied call-ups if they decide to play abroad.

"I think the important message for young fellas back home is, 'Yes, the Academy systems are all great'," he says.

"But you might not get that opportunity of getting that contract you're after but there are opportunities elsewhere if you are passionate about giving it a go.

"I would love to represent my country, 100pc but I understand that when you're away, you're not looked upon because you're not playing in the same league as these guys every week.

"The same control isn't over guys but maybe in the future, maybe we shouldn't be afraid to let fellas go away and play in different leagues and experience different things.

"I'm playing in the Premiership where I get the opportunity to play against a lot of guys who play international rugby on a weekly basis. That's something for them (IRFU) to maybe look at in the future."

Irish Independent

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