Gareth Steenson: from Ulster reject to Exeter’s beating heart
Irish outhalf served his time in second tier and now has European glory in his sights
Gareth Steenson in action for Exeter against Worcester at Sandy Park. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty
Munster supporters visiting Devon for the first time this weekend should brace themselves for a strangely familiar experience. A south-west based band of brothers, deeply rooted in their local community, fiercely committed to putting their region on the European map and roared on by a passionate audience? The cathedral green of Exeter has a more mellow feel than worldly-wise Limerick but, in terms of attitude, the rugby men of Chiefs and Munster are peas from the same relentless pod.
The home team even boast their own Guinness-loving outhalf, now such a bona fide legend he is opening an Irish pub in town with his former team-mate Carl Rimmer. The Stand Off (its name is shared with the bar famously installed in his own garage for recreational use) is a few days away from serving its first customers but, when it does, the queue to buy Gareth Steenson a pint will stretch to Topsham and back. If one player epitomises how far Exeter have travelled it is “Steeno”, as pivotal a figure in the Chiefs’ rise as Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton have been to their respective tribes.
The only difference is that Steenson has never played a minute of Test rugby. He still remembers the life-changing day in 2006 when, having previously captained Ireland U-21s and featured at two junior World Cups, he was called in by Mark McCall, then Ulster’s head coach, and told he was being released by his native province because David Humphreys had decided to keep playing for another year. How differently might the respective fortunes of Ulster and the Chiefs have unfolded had he stayed? Almost 2,500 points for Exeter later, it is now McCall who grimaces whenever their paths cross.
The truth, however, is that Steenson’s roving years in the backwaters of the English Championship with Rotherham, Cornish Pirates and the Chiefs were the making of him. Along the way he learned plenty about self-reliance, about emotional fulfilment and, above all, about himself. “If my wife was to describe me ‘stubborn’ would be one of the words she’d use,” he murmurs, reflecting in the midweek sunshine on his circuitous route from Dungannon to Europe’s top tables. “I think my whole career has been built on being told I wasn’t good enough. You’ve got to overcome things. If you’re handed stuff you don’t appreciate it. Even now, at the tender age I’m at, I see every game as a bonus. Go out and enjoy it, because if you enjoy something you tend to be good at it.”
McCall, for one, has long since held up his hands in admiration. Even at 34, Steenson remains Exeter’s beating heart, his years in adversity having forged a steely marksman who misses kicks at goal about as often as Rob Baxter downloads hip hop. “Mark says he now uses me as a great example to all of his young players,” reveals Steenson. “It was very difficult to be told: ‘Either go and get a job or try something in the lower leagues.’ It’s easy to sit here now but at the time it was tough.”
Even now, the “I’ll show ’em” tenacity that dragged him through shows little sign of diminishing. Ignore the university lecturer’s beard and focus instead on the narrowing eyes when the big matches come around. Baxter describes his number 10 as “still one of our best trainers” and can rely on him to galvanise everyone around him: “In certain games when we’re a bit off he can be that trigger. Even in games when it looks like we’re going to win and things are looking comfortable he’ll still be nailing touchline conversions.”
Steenson, though, is not an automaton. He has simply reached the point where he understands so precisely what makes him - and by extension Exeter - tick that he is rewriting the traditional rules of sports psychology. Have you ever heard, for example, of a top goal-kicker who recommends missing kicks in training? “I like to practise missing. The worst thing you can do is go out and hit 30 kicks out of 30. You don’t want to miss one in a game and not know how to deal with it. At the end of the day, it’s all about the top two inches.”
He takes a similar intuitive approach to his defensive duties. When Exeter were first promoted he was perceived, at only 5ft 10in and 87kg, as a relatively weak defender. Not any longer. “I’ve always been stereotyped and told I wasn’t good at it. I don’t like to be told I’m not good at something. I now treat it very much like my kicking. If I want to be the best kicker I’ve got to practise it. If I want to be a confident tackler the same applies. I’ve tried to have a different mindset: to go and attack tackles and enjoy defending. I do still miss tackles but I’m not going to lose sleep over it. There’s a bit of physics involved when you’ve a 120kg man running straight at you. But if I can speed bump him and someone else takes him, I’ll take that.”
And now, having landed the nerveless extra-time goal that clinched Exeter’s 2017 Premiership title and steered his unbeaten team to the top of this season’s domestic table, the final frontier is Europe. Not least against Leinster at home last year, the Chiefs have not always delivered against the continent’s most powerful outfits. This season they have been actively targeting the Munster game for several weeks. “Last year we probably rolled into Europe a little bit. This year we don’t just want to rock up and hope. We’ve got an expectation that we’ve got a solid game, a game that can hurt most sides.
“In times gone by we’ve probably looked to miracle plays, which we don’t normally do. I think that’s shifted; we have a winning mentality now. If we put our best game out there, we’ve got the confidence we can beat whoever we play. We’re not looked upon as everyone’s second favourite club or just the plucky underdog any more. I think we’re at a point where we’ve got a squad who can actually achieve things.” When “Steeno” takes aim at something, whether it be running an Irish pub or bisecting a set of distant posts, history suggests it tends to happen.