The Exeter fly-half has fought for everything he’s got and Chiefs fans love him for it. This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in March 2018.
WE KNOW about his kicking, and the stats tell us that only six men have scored more Premiership points, but that’s well down the list of qualities that make Gareth Steenson a club hero.
“The big thing that Gareth doesn’t get the credit for,” says Exeter DoR Rob Baxter, “is how long and how hard he’s actually worked for on a day-by-day, session-by-session basis.
“He had to fight for his place for a few seasons. A lot of players who come out of the Championship give it a go for a bit, they get excited by the challenge and can be quite good for a while. But to stay good for the number of years that Gareth has is testament to his resilience both mentally and physically. And his desire to keep working and keep improving his game. For me, those are the most important qualities he’s shown.”
Steenson’s nerveless late penalties in last year’s Premiership final, the first to draw level with Wasps and the second to win the title in extra-time, are fresh in the memory. But Baxter cites the 2010 Championship final at Bristol as arguably the Ulsterman’s finest hour. Exeter led only 9-6 from the home leg and travelled up as underdogs.
“I don’t know if there would be a fly-half in world rugby who could have managed that night as well as Gareth. You can talk about Jonny Wilkinson and all kinds of people but with what the team wanted, how the conditions were, knowing how to play against Bristol, he was faultless. His control of when to run, when to kick, when we should play was fantastic.”
Steenson landed six penalties and two drop-goals to launch a giddy journey in the top flight. At times he played second fiddle to Ignacio Mieres or Ryan Davis, and one reason for that was a defensive frailty that took a while to shake.
“There was a time when occasionally we’d move him to blindside wing. I remember Gareth saying, ‘Come on, I don’t want this anymore, I want to be stood at ten in attack and defence.’ We said, ‘Fine, but if you stand there you know what your responsibility will be.’
“And again, it’s something else in Gareth’s game that people wouldn’t know, he makes more tackles in training than anyone else. He practises his technique at least three times a week. He doesn’t just kick at goal, he does everything.”
If he’s become the player he is by handling setbacks, we shouldn’t be surprised. This is a man who, frustrated by a lack of opportunities at Ulster, had the courage to leave his home country to seek fame and fortune.
He played for Rotherham and Cornish Pirates before arriving at Sandy Park ten years ago. This is his testimonial season and for all his on-pitch contributions for Chiefs – more than 250 games, nearly 2,400 points – it’s Steenson the bloke that fans and team-mates most warm to.
He’s forever thanking supporters on Twitter and has famously turned his garage into a bar, where some of the players enjoy a drink after away games.
“On the bus on the way home he’ll say come in for a beer,” says centre Ian Whitten. “He’s got Guinness on tap and doesn’t have to twist my arm too much! It’s more the older fellas. Tony Walker, the team manager, goes in quite a lot.
“I always room with Steeno. We had a big testimonial do in November and instead of a Mr and Mrs I did a Mr and Mr with him. That was a bit of craic.”
Married to Karen and with two young sons, Oscar (above) and William, Steenson is nearly 34 and a family man now. He fits in a bit of golf and is doing online qualifications, preparing for a likely move to the back-room staff one day.
Whitten believes Steenson has shown the value of believing in yourself when other people don’t. “He got a raw deal at Ulster but he kept fighting. I think that’s why he’s so popular with the fans, because everybody appreciates a man who’s had to do it the hard way.”
This feature first appeared in Rugby world magazine in March 2018.