Sunday 25 February 2018

Steenson making most of life outside the bubble

Ex-Ulster out-half Gareth Steenson has made quite an impression at Exeter, says Brendan Fanning

Gareth Steenson doesn't reel off the time and the date but he has a fairly clear recollection of the day five years ago when he was called into the office in Ravenhill and asked to hand back his keys to the executive washroom.

The problem was of course that he had never seen them, let alone held them in his hands. Having been picked up by Ulster for their Academy three years previously, the 21-year-old out-half from Armagh had never got close to leapfrogging David Humphreys, Paddy Wallace or Adam Larkin -- all of whom were in that queue ahead of him. Hardly surprising. It was suggested that he might look elsewhere.

He did. And now, as a more travelled 26-year-old, he has worked himself into a position where his prime footballing years are beginning to unfold, just as he is setting foot in England's Premiership. The odds are that his feet won't be long on the ground when his club Exeter are going back to where they came -- the Championship below. Your impression may be that that is standard for the promoted team. In fact, it has only happened once in the last five years.

For Steenson, though, this season will be another one where he puts on his best gear and climbs onto the catwalk. That's what has got him to this point. Back in his Dungannon days, when Andre Bester was always in his ear trying to get him to Belfast Harlequins, he had obvious issues around his defence but Bester saw enough in his footballing ability to pursue him avidly. It was when Ulster finally said no to Steenson that Steenson said yes to Bester. By then, the South African coach had moved to Rotherham, and it became a lifeline for the young out-half.

"It was strange," he says. "I didn't have a clue where I was going. I took the boat and got over there and like the only person I knew was Andre. It was good though. I'm very happy I did it and it's made me a better person and it definitely opened up a lot of opportunities as well.

"Rotherham was an amateur club run professionally, if that makes sense. Andre is very in control of things and he got us to go out and work in the community, which was good for me. You were sometimes doing rugby-orientated stuff, going out to schools and either coaching kids or reading to kids, taking PE lessons and stuff like that. I enjoyed it and it passed the day as well because we trained in the evenings. It brought everyone together as well. There was a great atmosphere around Rotherham."

Steenson did well for them, well enough for Cornish Pirates to come calling and spirit him off to that independent republic in England's south west. Lovely in summer, he says; not so flash in winter. He shot 264 points for them and Exeter had seen enough to slot him into their promotion jigsaw.

"Obviously I was taken aback when I saw Sandy Park and straight away I was very keen. Again I had London Irish asking but we felt that for me to develop Exeter was the best place to come. This is my third year here now. The first was a bit of a learning curve and we had 50 blokes here and they were all full-time and I think the club just got it a bit wrong. There was a lot of fellas not happy. They basically got all the best players -- I came at the same time as Tom Hayes (John's brother) -- from the other clubs, 50 of the best players in the league you'd say and it just didn't work out. But last year we built well and went up."

It was the conclusion to that campaign last season that started getting Steenson some airtime. A home and away play-off with Bristol to see who went up to the Premiership this season -- Exeter won both with their out-half contributing all but five of their 38 points over the two legs. Under real pressure, he was outstanding both off the tee and from his hand. It was classic cup rugby: low risk, high intensity, and with a premium on squeezing points through every window that opened.

And despite their terrific start against Gloucester, where he weighed in with 17 points, it won't get them far in the Premiership. They will need to do more, and so will he, though he says his game has come on heaps from when he was an Irish under 19 and 21 player.

"Physically, I'm in much better shape -- a lot quicker, sharper. And definitely when I was back home I was seen as a kicking 10. I would just sit in the pocket and stuff. Now running the game is one of my strengths. I've been making a lot of breaks and attacking more, bringing the backs more into the game. I'm quite lucky because Ali Hepher's here at Exeter. He was the Northampton 10 and a European Cup winner and he's been fantastic for me. All the coaches I've had since I came over to England have given me something different, which is good."

It's handy to have such a strong Irish influence at the club. Apart from Hayes, there is second row David Gannon, flanker Eoghan Grace and prop Ruaidhri Murphy. And like the rest of the playing staff at Exeter, they are bonded by having to prove people wrong.

"That's exactly what the whole thing was built on last year," says Steenson. "That we had to listen to stuff about Bristol being much better -- they had just come down. We knew we were better than Bristol from the start, that if we performed we could win this thing and that's exactly what happened. Everybody in this squad has been told somewhere along the line: 'You're not good enough to be here'. And we're

just sticking together and keeping going at it -- it's the same idea this year as well."

The bookies have them as favourites to come unstuck but it won't be for lack of infrastructure. Exeter came up to England's top flight because they were ready, not because they stumbled in the door. Their set-up at Sandy Park between training and playing facilities is first class. With a population of 120,000, and with a long history of rugby in the blood, Exeter is a city keen to succeed. Steenson looks around the place when he comes in to work of a morning and thinks back to getting the heave-ho in Ravenhill.

"It was a tough few days and obviously it was tough having to leave the place where you grew up," he says. "Back home there was nowhere else to look other than the four provinces. You felt like it's just that little area but if you can get outside that bubble then across the water is a whole other world. It gives you other opportunities and I would say to other fellas that if you get the opportunity to play in the Championship for a year -- take it, because you're playing rugby and you're playing rugby at a very good level. For me, in my position as a 10, I need to be playing rugby. As a young fella, I need to be experiencing these things."

He is now.

Sunday Independent

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