Gareth Steenson and Exeter Chiefs braced for a Connacht backlash

Pole position in the pool at stake for both teams in Sportsground showdown

There is an chuckle at the other end of a phone line as Gareth Steenson discusses the topic of weather and the Sportsground. It's more than a decade since he played in Galway but for the Ulster-born, Exeter Chief the chill may only recently have left his bones if not his memory.

“I haven’t played there since my underage interprovincial days but the weather was always pretty rough, very windy and often raining. In looking at footage of their recent matches that doesn’t appear to have changed a great deal,” he laughs.

The good news for Steenson is that tomorrow is expected to crisp and clear. The 30-year-old outhalf starts on the bench, the number 10 jersey worn by Henry Slade, who switches from his regular outside centre spot.

Tactical kicking

Slade, widely tipped as a future England international, has been exiled to the midfield because Steenson’s form this season has been outstanding. He leads the kicking statistics in the Aviva English Premiership with a success rate of over 85 per cent but there is so much more to his game.


His tactical kicking, ability to challenge and beat the defensive line and distribution skills are consistently impressive, if occasionally underrated by those outside the Sandy Park club.

Last summer he was told to go and work on his defence, the weakest part of his game. The Chiefs used to try and hide Steenson from first phase play but given the work he’s done in the off-season he now defends in the 10 channel.

Slade and Ceri Sweeney would have been serious challengers for his 10 shirt based on last season’s form but he’s won that battle, a fact reflected in the three-year contract extension he recently signed. When that runs out he’ll have been at the club for 10 years.

Steenson, a former school-mate and team-mate of Tommy Bowe, who played in an Ireland team that lost to New Zealand in the 2004 Under-21 World Cup final in Glasgow – Jamie Heaslip and Tomás O'Leary were part of that team to name but two – is happily ensconced at the club. Pretty idyllic Life away from the pitch alongside wife Karen and boys Oscar (22 months) and William (seven months) is pretty idyllic. He knows what to expect from Connacht and how Exeter must arrest a slide of four consecutive defeats. "The last four weeks have been disappointing but we're still in good shape, fifth in the Premiership and with a good chance in two cup (LV=Cup, the other) competitions.

“Connacht have been going incredibly well this season and they’ll want to make up for last week’s disappointing loss by producing a high-quality performance. There is a lot at stake for both teams in relation to pool honours. Whoever wins here is going to have a strong hand going in to the final weekend.”

The composition of both teams bears no relation to the earlier pool match between them – the Chiefs won 33-13 at Sandy Park – but the home side will miss the injured Bundee Aki. Dave McSharry comes in to form a midfield partnership with Robbie Henshaw; the latter finds himself up against England international Jack Nowell, who swaps his traditional place on the wing for outside centre.

The conventional wisdom is that Connacht's greater focus is on league matters but that hardly means they're going to abdicate interest in the Challenge Cup and, after all, winning is a good habit.

CONNACHT: M Muliaina; D Poolman, R Henshaw, D McSharry, M Healy; C Ronaldson, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), W Faloon, G Naoupu. Replacements: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, F Bealham, A Browne, E McKeon, C Blade, J Carty, D Leader.

EXETER: P Dollman; I Whitten, J Nowell, S Hill, M Jess; H Slade, D Lewis; B Moon, L Cowan-Dickie, A Brown, D Mumm (capt), D Welch; D Ewers, D Armand, T Waldrom. Replacements: G Bateman, B Sturgess, C Rimmer, K Horstmann, J Scaysbrook, H Thomas, G Steenson, B McGuigan.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).

Formguide: (Challenge Cup 2015-2016) Connacht – bt La Rochelle (h) 48-12; lost to Exeter Chiefs (a) 33-13; bt Bayonne (h) 42-19; bt Bayonne (a) 29-27. Exeter Chiefs – Lost to Bayonne (a) 30-24; by Connacht (h) 33-13; bt La Rochell (a) 36-10; bt La Rochelle (h) 41-17. Leading try scorers: Connacht – D Poolman 3. Exeter Chiefs: A Hughes, F Vainikolo, T James 2 each. Leading point scorers: Connacht – M Nikora and C Ronaldson 19 points each. Exeter Chiefs – G Steenson 24 points. Betting (Paddy Powers): Connacht 6/5, draw 20/1, Exeter Chiefs 4/6. Handicap: Connacht (+3) 10/11, draw 20/1, Exeter Chiefs 10/11. Verdict: Connacht

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer