Steenson and Chiefs have no intention of holding back
The Exeter Chiefs outhalf has no time for regrets, writes GAVIN CUMMISKEY
GARETH STEENSON could be forgiven for looking back and thinking what might have been.
What if Ulster identified him as David Humphreys’ heir apparent (much like Paddy Jackson has been anointed in 2012)? What if his knee hadn’t blown out in October 2010, just as he was establishing himself as a goal-kicking Premiership outhalf? What if his undoubted quality had been visible on a more regular basis?
Steenson, for sure, is a prime example of the major glitch in the Irish rugby matrix. As were James Downey and Bob Casey before him. The same can be said about his Exeter Chiefs team-mate Tom Hayes. It’s called the Irish bottleneck; a backlog of talent in certain positions has forced players abroad, where they are largely ignored when it comes to international selection.
Despite impressing for the Ireland Under-21s when they made the 2004 World Cup final, Steenson was soon back playing for Dungannon in the AIL. With no opportunity at provincial level, off he went to the lower English leagues. “David was still there, Adam Larkin too and Paddy Wallace so I took the opportunity to go from Dungannon to Rotherham then on to the Cornish Pirates. A year in each before Exeter picked me up. Been here ever since.”
That has become a popular route for aspiring Irish-born professionals rejected by their own system. “For me at that stage it was all about getting game time at a competitive level. The championship over here is a very good learning curve because every game matters.”
The constantly under-rated English club makes its Heineken Cup debut at the RDS Showgrounds on Saturday night so this is hardly a week when Steenson is thinking about what might have been. This is a real, live opportunity.
Granted, since the knee injury the 28-year-old has struggled to dislodge Argentinian international Ignacio Mieres from the Chiefs’ cockpit. That was until last weekend. Then Premiership champions Harlequins came to Sandy Park and were leathered 42-28 with Steenson kicking 15 points in a famous victory.
But Exeter still come to Dublin just as they like it: under-rated minnows of European rugby. They play with a chip on their shoulder that would have old Munster forwards purring with delight. “Look at the guys at this club that have been here when we were still in the championship,” Steenson explains. “A lot of them were told they weren’t good enough somewhere else. Now put all of them in together. Even when we won the championship, that year we were told Bristol were going to win it.
“In the Premiership we were told we were never going to win a game, we were not going to stay up. We proved that wrong too. Then we had to contend with second-season syndrome. We did that. Then we proved we could compete in the Amlin Cup.
“There is a bunch of guys here that have proved a lot of people wrong and they want to keep doing that. We get that opportunity every year. It is the Heineken Cup now.
“We have worked so hard to be able to play these sort of games that we are not going to let it pass us by. We will not hold back.”
We have to ask about Hayes. The younger brother of an Ireland legend, he has attained similar status in Exeter.
“We are both going into our fifth season at the club and he is just a huge influence as a leader. The boys look up to him, when he speaks everyone listens. When he goes somewhere, everyone follows.”
Two years ago Steenson was contacted by the RFU about declaring for England. Then he got injured. Still never capped at A level, he has not given up the idea of one day playing Test rugby. For Ireland.
“I’ve never had any contact from senior management in the Irish side. We’ve no control over that over here. If I ever got a phone call from the senior Irish management that would be fantastic.
“All I can do is go out and perform for this club. Playing in Europe now and the Premiership on a weekly basis, you never know what could happen.”
He understands better than most that one swallow doesn’t make a summer.
Last weekend was impressive but to repeat it in Dublin would force certain people to take notice.
“It will be great to go home and play against guys I played with at underage – the likes of Jamie and Jonny Sexton. It will be great to see them again and hopefully put one over on them.
“It is our first experience of the Heineken Cup and you couldn’t have asked for a better one – taking the champions on in their own backyard, especially with a couple of Irish fellas here going back and playing in that environment.”