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Steenson overlooked by Ireland but now on brink of Premiership title

The 32-year-old out-half has been a central figure in Exeter Chiefs’ remarkable rise.

Updated at 11.45

HAVING TURNED 32 last month, Gareth Steenson understands that any chance of earning an Ireland cap is now almost certainly gone.

The Dungannon man may go down as one of the better Irish out-halves not to earn Test honours.

Today, he will captain Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership final against Saracens at Twickenham [KO 3pm, BT Sport 1], having been a central part of the club’s remarkable journey all the way from the second-tier Championship.

Exeter Chiefs v Wasps - Aviva Premiership - Semi Final - Sandy Park Steenson celebrates last weekend's semi-final win against Wasps. Source: Julian Herbert

The out-half scored 24 points in the promotion play-off against Bristol back in 2010 and has rarely let up that standard since. With 243 this season, Steenson is by some distance the most prolific points-scorer in the Premiership.

Along with his metronomic kicking from tee and hand, the Irishman has been at the heartbeat of the Chiefs’ impressive attacking game – only Wasps matched their haul of 71 tries in the regular season – and he has also muscled up on defence to help Exeter concede fewer points than any other team in the league.

Steenson has been consistent for Exeter throughout their growth into title contenders in recent years, but his interaction with Ireland has been essentially non-existent.

“I had contact from Les Kiss about three or four years ago,” says Steenson. “It was when the [2013] British and Irish Lions trip was happening, and he just said ‘you’re on the radar’ but I’ve never had any more chats with them.

“I understand the position, I know very much the way the IRFU work. It’s very much that if you’re outside Ireland you’re not really looked upon. I can accept that because I’ve never really played my rugby at home.

“I’ve never had an opportunity to play rugby in Ireland, I’ve never been asked to come back and play for any of the provinces.

“Look, the whole Irish thing – I’m very aware that I probably came into a good bit of form at the wrong side of 30 to be in that position. There are guys coming through the system and all that sort of thing. They’re the cards you’re dealt.

“I don’t spend an awful lot of time thinking about it, although it would have been nice to have maybe one week in a training squad just to see how it was, but it wasn’t be.”

Gareth Steenson Steenson kicks at goal in the 2004 U21 Rugby World Championship final. Source: INPHO

Steenson initially came through the ranks with home province Ulster, starring for their underage sides and earning Ireland Schools, U19 and U21 honours.

He was at out-half in the U21 side that went all the way to the 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 St. Mary’s clubman by the name of Johnny Sexton in a team that also included Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry and Stephen Ferris.

While many of those young stars went on to establish themselves for their provinces, Steenson had a major roadblock at Ulster – David Humphreys.

Ironically, it was Mark McCall – now Saracens’ director of rugby – who told Steenson that his future was not with Ulster.

“At the time, I was told ‘there is nothing here for you,’ because David Humphreys was there. It was actually Mark McCall who told me that Humphs was taking another year. ‘There is nothing here for you, if you want to try your hand somewhere else.’”

Steenson took a “leap of faith” and moved to the English Championship, joining Rotherham Titans for the 2006/07 campaign and then shifting to the Cornish Pirates the following season.

Exeter were convinced by Steenson’s impressive impact on the league, both as a playmaker and a points machine, and lured him to Devon in 2008.

“The Championship is a road less travelled, but I would say to any young Irish players back home that if it doesn’t work out in the provinces there are many opportunities elsewhere if you’re willing to up sticks and have a go at it,” says Steenson.

Steenson’s tactical ingenuity and positive personality won over the Chiefs fans rapidly, with his performances in the promotion season earning him even more credit. He is now very much part of the fabric at Sandy Park.

Gareth Steenson Steenson has been a central figure in Exeter for years. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity Exeter Chiefs have given me and the journey I’ve had,” says Steenson. “It might be a road less travelled but I’ve definitely had a great time. Exeter Chiefs is my home club now.”

The out-half, having stayed fit and healthy, has had the season of his life and now hopes to top it off by helping the Chiefs to their first-ever Premiership title.

McCall’s Saracens are the favourites after their recent Champions Cup glory and a table-topping campaign, but Exeter have been upsetting the odds all season long.

Steenson has been playing alongside fellow Ulsterman Ian Whitten since 2012/13, with the inside centre also enjoying the best season of his career in the current campaign. A genuine unsung hero, the 28-year-old starts in the 12 shirt against Saracens today.

Lock Lewis Stevenson joined the party this season too, but has been limited to just four appearances and won’t feature in the final.

Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter has seen his fine reputation balloon even further this season. The 45-year-old was an Exeter captain in his own playing days and has guided the club from the Championship all the way to today’s final.

“Rob lets us go and express ourselves, he doesn’t really put the shackles on at any point,” says Steenson of Baxter’s strengths. “He’s been head coach as long as I’ve been here, so it’s not an awfully long time.

“He’s like the club, he’s a great example because at the club we always talk about being better each year. I feel we have progressed very well as a club and the whole coaching staff has progressed.

“Even [backs coach] Ali Hepher now going off with the Saxons will be a great experience. [Skills coach] Ricky Pellow, these guys you don’t hear a lot of, are putting in a lot of hard work behind the scenes.

Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs - Aviva Premiership - Franklin's Gardens Ian Whitten has been excellent for Chiefs too. Source: Joe Giddens

“We’re all on that journey, some of us have been there since the Championship and there are a few of us still knocking around. We’ve always been on that journey where we want to get better year on year, add a couple of wrinkles to it.”

Alongside the more experienced heads, the Chiefs have been driven by an undercurrent of youth in their squad. The likes of 23-year-old Jack Nowell, 22-year-old Luke Cowan-Dickie and 23-year-old Henry Slade have been cornerstones.

“They bring a lot of enthusiasm and now they’re bringing quite a bit of experience, especially now that they’re international players and some of them have played in a World Cup,” says Steenson.

“They’ve had a few seasons of Premiership rugby now and that’s quite a lot of experience to have on young shoulders. They play with a bit of flair but they’ve got the top two inches right; they know what needs to be done at the right times.

“They bring a lot of confidence out there. Luke brings his physicality, Jack Nowell is a dangerous guy. Henry is a 10 by nature and all together they’re brilliant.”

Very often, Steenson has been the man tying all the various elements together to ensure the Chiefs have been a cohesive unit and it would be fitting for the Irish out-half to lift a Premiership trophy.

With club captain Jack Yeandle locked in a tussle with Cowan-Dickie for the starting hooker position, the captaincy has fallen to Steenson this season.

“The position you play as a 10, you are a leader on the field,” says Steenson of taking on the leadership duties. “You’re a leader in the changing room beforehand. It’s almost like a natural progression. When you’re captain, you run out at the front of the line and flip the coin before the match.”

Gareth Steenson Steenson has leaned on the experience of others such as Geoff Parling. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s a typically selfless response from Steenson, whose only thoughts are for the collective. He happily reports that Exeter have prepared for today’s final much as they would for any other game, although with a welcome extra degree of niggle in their contact session.

The Chiefs will have to pull out something special to beat Saracens but they have been doing so all season.

Steenson is focused on his own job, but afterwards he’ll be keeping an ear out for the result from this evening’s Guinness Pro12 final in Murrayfield. Exeter have been compared to Leicester City several times in recent months, but perhaps Connacht are a more suitable comparison.

Both clubs have made remarkable strides on a base of intelligent attacking rugby and a strong culture off the pitch.

“From an Irish point of view, it’s great to see Connacht going as well as they are and it would be fantastic achievement if they were to lift the trophy as well,” says Steenson.

“It’s great because they were viewed as a development side, that’s the way I would have looked at it 10 years ago back home. It’s great they play the brand of rugby they do now.

“It’s great to see that they’re fighting on all fronts and toppling teams as well. Hopefully they get the results, and us too.”

He might not get his Ireland cap, but no one would begrudge Steenson a Premiership title.

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Murray Kinsella

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