Tuesday 20 March 2018

Steenson a leader among high-flying Chiefs

Irish No 10 has been guiding light in building English champions

Exeter’s Gareth Steeson struggled to make the grade in his home province of Ulster. Photo: Getty Images
Exeter’s Gareth Steeson struggled to make the grade in his home province of Ulster. Photo: Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For Gareth Steenson, leaving Ulster wasn't a choice. One door closing meant that he had two options - move abroad and try to sustain his rugby career or take up life among the civilians.

The offer on the table was from Exeter Chiefs who, in 2008, were an ambitious club still fighting for promotion from the English second tier.

Steenson heard good things about the set-up and gave it a shot. Almost a decade later, he has a Premiership medal in his back pocket and was honoured by the club with a testimonial.

Whenever he chooses to retire, the 33-year-old will always have a place in Sandy Park hearts, but he has work to do before then.

Exeter are not satisfied with their lot and currently lead the league by some distance. Their key focus this year, however, is on Europe and doing the tag of English champions proud.

And that could mean bad news for Leinster who are two points ahead of the Devon team ahead of their visit to Sandy Park on Sunday.

It's all a world away from the place the youngster found himself having struggled to make the grade at his home province.

"I never had a choice, there was nothing for me at the time," he said of his big decision. "It was either go find real job or get out there."

Now, the Dungannon man is looking forward rather than backwards. A senior man in the Chiefs set-up, he has seen what can come with hard work and clear planning and is not content to sit back and enjoy last year's success.

"We are completely new Premiership champions, it's new for the club and it was always going to be different challenge, but we're in a really good place in the Premiership and in a good position in Europe," he said. "We had never really started well in Europe before, so that has been a bit of a focus for us.

"To be in this position now going into the back-to-back fixtures and playing a team that has won two games like us is very exciting going into Sunday's fixture."

Leinster have been to Sandy Park before at the tail-end of Exeter's debut season in Europe's main competition.

The Chiefs took a bonus point from the RDS during Joe Schmidt's last campaign, but they were blown away on the final day by a Blues side chasing a bonus-point win to keep them in the competition. Despite getting the full house with a 29-20, results elsewhere went against them.

Five seasons on, they'll find a club far more at home in their own skin.

"There are massive differences," Steenson explained. "That was our first year being in the old Heineken Cup. It was more of an exciting experience for us, more about building as a club.

"The squad we had then, for it to be fighting on two fronts was probably too much. It was very much about just trying to establish ourselves as a Premiership club.

"At the time, having the European champions going to Sandy Park and going across to Dublin was very exciting. In the last four-five years we have tried to keep building and progress has been made.

"We've played in the knockout stages of Europe just the once, we've obviously played in a Premiership final and lost it, then won it. It shows how the club has grown. We feel we're in a good position, especially fighting on all fronts including the Anglo-Welsh Cup.

"We have a good understanding of what makes us tick as a group.

"The mistake we made before in Europe when we had gone into the competition was we tried to do things out of our comfort zone, things we're not used to doing.


"We spoke about being ourselves, playing the game we play in the Premiership, and we have been successful in that competition, about going forward and continuing to do what we do, imposing our games on teams. We feel we can do that."

When they're being themselves, they're pretty good.

They play with real width and play with huge pace, using the now-familiar second wave attacks to get around the rush defence and once they get into the 22 the forwards take over.

This season, almost half of their tries have come from the pack and that's because they are so effective at picking and jamming.

"Exeter are an incredible side," Leinster's Luke McGrath said this week.

"They hold on to the ball so well. Our defence is going to be tested probably like it hasn't been to date this year.

"Some of the phases they go through, 20 to 30 phases, you think you have them but they end up scoring a try. Their ball retention is brilliant, so it's a massive challenge ahead.

"They play a really wide game with Steenson and (Henry) Slade, once they get into the 22, they pick and go and go to their mauls, it shows the variety they have. They're very well-coached so we just have to be ready for everything."

A prodigious out-half at U-20 level, Slade has moved out the backline where he dovetails well with Steenson and adds a creative edge for the likes of Jack Nowell on the edge.

Their pack is light on big names, but big on impact. Luke Cowen-Dickie is an impressive hooker, while the workmanlike Thomas Waldron punches holes from close range.

Impressive director of rugby Rob Baxter puts it all together and makes it tick.

"I've had a working relationship with him for a long time," Steenson said.

"I've been here 10 years and Rob is part of the furniture. When I first arrived he was forwards coach, in charge, just learning the straps. He wasn't long out of playing himself.

"He was kind of forced into the position of being head coach at the end of that first season and he went from there. He appointed people who added to the style of play and the culture.

"He's very good at letting us express ourselves and very hard when he needs to be. He's learning along the way, I feel I spent my pro career growing alongside him. We have a nice relationship.

"We haven't always seen eye to eye, but I think that happens in most cases.

"It is an exciting group of guys. I get to play with a lot of guys who are starting to shine on the international stage: Henry Slade, Sam Simmons, Jack Nowell, my old friend Ian Whitten. It's always a fun style of rugby and everyone is excited to play.

"We always said that we wanted to keep things fresh, unique, not to be too down on ourselves when we lose, don't get carried away when we win. We're good at parking results.

"We've had a good start every time we've played, we've won or lost with a bonus point and felt we could get better as a group.

"That's key. There's no point looking too far down the line as you can get caught out very quickly."

Sunday's game, Steenson says, represents an examination of their progress.

"Leinster are a very strong outfit," he said.

"They have a host of internationals right across the board. They have a high-class pedigree in the competition. They've started well and getting maximum points is no mean feat. I'm very excited about the game.

"We know we have got to be on our mettle. It's probably a good test of what we've done over the last five years. Back then they were just off the back of winning the Champions Cup. It's a very exciting fixture."


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