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11 years after being released by Ulster, Steenson driving Exeter's pursuit of European success

The Dungannon-born out-half has been a central figure in the Chiefs’ remarkable rise and he’s relishing the prospect of coming up against Johnny Sexton and Leinster this weekend.

Exeter Chiefs v Wasps - Aviva Premiership - Final - Twickenham Gareth Steenson celebrates guiding Exeter Chiefs to last year's Premiership title. Source: PA

‘I was told that there was nothing for me at the time so it was either find a real job or go and chase my dream, so that was that.’

IT’S FUNNY HOW things can work out, how one door closing can lead to another opening.

On Sunday, Gareth Steenson will lead Exeter Chiefs — the Premiership champions — out in front of a raucous Sandy Park crowd to face Leinster, the three-time European champions, in the first of the oft pool-deciding back-to-back December games. The stakes couldn’t be any higher at this juncture of the competition, the stage couldn’t be any bigger.

And for Steenson, the 33-year-old Dungannon-born out-half, the next fortnight carries an extra significance given he is coming up against one of the provinces 11 years after he was told by Ulster that his potential had expired and there was no longer a place for him at Ravenhill.

Boy, has he proved them wrong.

Steenson last May kicked the winning point at Twickenham as Exeter, under the guidance of Rob Baxter, claimed Premiership glory seven short years after gaining promotion from the second-tier Championship and their title defence hasn’t got off to a bad start either, the Chiefs sitting pretty at the summit with an eight-point cushion after 10 games.

The story of Exeter’s rise is remarkable and bordering on fairytale stuff, one built on hard work, perseverance and a never-say-die attitude. And the Irishman once told he was surplus to requirements by his own province has played a leading role in it.

In many ways, Exeter’s rapid evolution into England’s leading club has mirrored Steenson’s career trajectory; he has been an ever-present through it all. In the Championship play-off victory over Bristol in 2010, Steenson kicked 24 of his team’s points en route to the promised land and, then again, at Twickenham earlier this year he was the man of the moment, landing the title-winning points to complete the most extraordinary journey with victory over Wasps.

As the Exeter website says, he has already written his name into club folklore, but the hope for Steenson and his team-mates is that this has only been the opening chapter and they can now continue to build on the headlong progression and become a force to be reckoned with in Europe — and on the evidence of the first two rounds, they’re certainly making an impression with two-from-two, their credentials reaffirmed by the away victory in Montpellier last time out.

“It’s been a good start for us really, we’ve talked about being ourselves really this season,” Stenson says. “Obviously it’s completely brand new being Premiership champions and new for the club so it was always going to be a different kind of challenge for us when we started the season. We’re in a really good place in the Premiership and we’ve put ourselves in a good position in Europe.

“We’ve never really started well in Europe before and it was a bit of a focus for us this year that we had to get off to a good start. To be in a position now going into the back-to-back fixture against a team that have won their two games. It’s very exciting going into Sunday’s fixture.”

Gareth Steenson with Josh Graham Steenson in action for Ireland at the U21 World Championship back in 2004. Source: INPHO

Exeter encountered Leinster in their debut European odyssey five seasons ago, but it’s fair to say a lot has changed since then for both clubs. That campaign was a steep learning curve for the Chiefs and those lessons have helped shape their success over the intervening years and transform them into the team we’ll see on Sunday. The strides they’ve made have been based on a mixture of intelligent attacking rugby and a strong culture off the pitch.

“That year was more of an exciting experience for us and about building as a club,” Steenson explains. “The squad we had then to be fighting on two fronts was probably too much and we were very much trying to establish ourselves as a Premiership club at the time. It was a great experience to have the European champions coming to Sandy Park and then going across to Dublin. It was really exciting for the club.

“And over the last four or five years, we’ve very much just tried to keep on building the progress we have made. We’ve played now in the knock-out stages and to play in a Premiership final and lose it and then go back and win one. That has shown how much the club has grown and we now feel we’re in a good position, we’re even fighting on all three fronts and we’ve got a squad of guys together now who have a good understanding of what makes us tick as a group.”

That’s been the key.

Baxter has been able to build a squad over the last four years and create a culture and winning environment within the dressing room to engender that all-for-one attitude. Every player is reading off the same page and their hugely successful, and entertaining, style of play is now ingrained in each member of the panel, all the way down to the thriving academy set-up. There are certainly similarities with Leinster; family and community clubs, who pride themselves on developing home-grown talent and then giving them a chance to flourish.

“The evolution of the squad has been the key factor,” he continues. “A lot more guys have been here for two or three years and we’ve been building this style of play. We’re comfortable with the way we play and we understand what makes us tick as a group. Obviously getting to a couple of Premiership finals and then ultimately winning one with the style of rugby we’re playing puts a lot of confidence into guys. We feel on any given day if we can click and perform to our highest tempo we’re going to be a match for most sides in the Premiership and in Europe.

“The mistake we made before in Europe was when we went into the competition we tried to do things what Exeter Chiefs don’t do and tried to look for a miracle. Tried to do things out of our comfort zone and we talked about being ourselves this year. The game we play in the Premiership and one which has been successful for us, it’s really about going forward and continuing what we do well and we feel now we have a game that can compete with most teams.”

Glasgow and Montpellier felt the force of the Chiefs in full flight in October, and now Leinster will look to counteract the threats they carry across the park, including the playmaking artistry and unerringly accurate place-kicking of Steenson and Jack Nowell’s devastating ability to cut defences open, notwithstanding his finishing power, while there are also England internationals Sam Simmons, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade, and the two-time Ireland capped centre, Ian Whitten within their ranks.

Gloucester Rugby v Exeter Chiefs - Aviva Premiership - Kingsholm The Dungannon native is Exeter's leading points-scorer of all time. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

And, they’re on a roll.

The Chiefs have won the last nine games in all competitions, the most recent of which was the weekend’s emphatic 42-29 defeat of Bath, and certainty the novelty of the fixture, coupled with the weight it carries at this stage of the competition, means there is real excitement surrounding Sunday’s teatime kick-off.

“Leinster have a high-class pedigree in the competition and have obviously started it very well; sitting with maximum points is a good feat,” the Exeter 10 adds.

“We are very excited about the game. We know we have to be on our mettle but we feel we are in a good place as well. I am really looking forward to it because it probably is a good test to see how we have progressed over the last five years since Leinster last came here. They were in a different position too coming off the back of winning the Champions Cup at that point. It is a really exciting fixture to get into.”

And for Steenson, there’s also the chance to pit himself against former team-mate, and indeed room-mate, Johnny Sexton in a fascinating battle of the 10s. Both are the heartbeat of their sides’ attacking games having taken vastly contrasting career routes.

Steenson initially came through the ranks with his home province Ulster, starring for their underage sides and earning Ireland schools, U19 and U21 honours. He had been earmarked for a while.

He was at out-half in the U21 side that went all the way to the IRB World Championship final in 2004, where they lost to New Zealand. Alongside Steenson in that excellent team were the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Tomás O’Leary.

A year later, Steenson was back in the U21 set-up, starting at 10 ahead of a certain Johnny Sexton in a team that also included Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry and Stephen Ferris.

While all those players were able to establish themselves at their provinces by grasping opportunities when they came their way, Steenson’s development was blocked by the presence of David Humphreys at Ulster. For whatever reason, Mark McCall, the then director of rugby, told him his future was not with the northern province.

“I never had a choice really. I was told that there was nothing for me at the time so it was either find a real job or go and chase my dream, so that was that,” says Steenson, recalling how he continued to chase that dream by heading to England to play for Rotherham Titans and Cornish Pirates before earning a move to Exeter in 2008. He’s been part of the fabric at Sandy Park ever since.

Gareth Steenson Contact with the Irish management has been practically non-existent during his time in England. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But that means senior international honours have eluded him and, at the age of 33, Steenson has accepted for some time that he is likely to go down as one of the finest Irish out-halves not to play Test rugby.

Still, an opportunity this weekend to showcase himself to Irish eyes against Leinster and Sexton is one he relishes.

“The last time I played against Johnny was those couple of times five years ago,” he smiles.

“I spent a lot of time with him at underage rugby. We were U21s together, spent a month sharing a room. Johnny has been a fantastic servant to Leinster rugby and to Irish rugby. He has done really well in big games for the Lions. It is an exciting challenge for us as a group.

“For me personally I don’t really tend when you come up against opposition 10s, you don’t really have a lot against one another; you don’t really play against one another. You make your team focus on what they can and can’t do. For me it is exciting to get another opportunity to see him again and play against him.

“I’ll be trying to make sure that our lads are fully wired and ready to go.”

Two Irish out-halves, two vastly contrasting career paths, but both driving their respective clubs towards the end goal of European success.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Ryan Bailey

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