Gareth Steenson excited by the prospect of Leinster clash

Exeter Chiefs outhalf ready to face former Ireland U-21 team-mate Jonathan Sexton

Once upon a time, well 2005 to be precise, there were two young outhalves who competed for the Ireland number 10 jersey at the Under-21 Rugby World Cup in Argentina.

On Sunday, 12 years on, former roommates Gareth Steenson and Jonathan Sexton will oppose one another at Sandy Park as the Exeter Chiefs host Leinster in the Champions Cup. It's not for the first time since their Argentine sojourn as the two clubs met in Europe during the 2012-2013 season, the Irish province prevailing 9-6 at home and 29-20 in Devon.

Circumstances have changed, as five years ago Leinster were the reigning European kingpins; this time the Irish province face the champions of England and a side eight points clear at the top of the table as they bid to repeat last season’s achievement.

Steenson, who celebrated 10 years at Exeter with a testimonial last summer, had helped Ireland to the Under-21 World Cup final in 2004 – they were beaten by a Jerome Kaino-inspired New Zealand team in Glasgow – and was captain of the Ireland underage side the following season with Sexton his understudy in Argentina.


Their paths diverged almost immediately, Sexton's accumulating six Test caps for the British & Irish Lions, 68 appearances for Ireland and three European crowns amongst other titles while Steenson wasn't picked up by Ulster and instead found fame and fortune in England.

He laughed: “I never had a choice really. I was told that there was nothing for me at the time [in Ulster] so it was either find a real job or go and chase my dream.

“The last time I played against Johnny was those couple of times five years ago. I spent a lot of time with him [playing] underage rugby. We were Under-21s 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 British & Irish Lions.

Exciting challenge

“It is an exciting challenge for us as a group. For me personally when you come up against opposition 10s, you don’t really play against one another (in a strict sense).”

Steenson admitted that when the clubs last met the Chiefs didn’t have a squad that was capable of challenging on two fronts, domestically and in Europe, but the club has progressed appreciably and that is reflected in last season’s success, having been beaten in a Premiership final the previous year by Saracens.

A superb away win over Montpellier last time out and an opening weekend victory over Glasgow merely illustrate that the Chiefs have moved forward and developed relentlessly.

Steenson said: “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.

“We talked about being ourselves this year. We’re comfortable in 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 instils a lot of confidence into guys. 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.

“They [Leinster] have a high-class pedigree in the competition and have obviously started it very well; sitting with maximum points is a good feat. 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.”

For the Chiefs and Steenson, a case of catching up in every respect.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer