Whatever credit comes his way, Gareth Steenson deserves every bit of it after a magnificent playing career for Exeter. Rugby World pays tribute to the veteran fly-half
Gareth Steenson walks off into the sunset
Another week, another farewell. Today’s Gallagher Premiership final brings an end to one of the great English club careers, with Gareth Steenson stepping out for Exeter Chiefs one last time. Assuming Rob Baxter decides to give him a few minutes off the bench, that is.
The 36-year-old Irish fly-half has got used to playing second fiddle behind Joe Simmonds these past couple of years, just as he spent too long for his liking watching Ignacio Mieres and Ryan Davis in the ten shirt a decade or so ago. It is a mark of the man that Steenson never sulked but rolled up his sleeves and set about improving as a player. For the good of himself and the good of the team.
He arrived at Sandy Park in 2008 and has been there for every stage of their incredible journey. The first major landmark was perhaps the most important, the two-leg play-off win over Bristol in 2010 that took Chiefs into the Premiership big time.
Exeter travelled to the Memorial Ground with just a 9-6 first-leg lead. Few people outside of Devon felt Chiefs would get through. Speak to director of rugby Baxter about Steenson’s performance that night and his admiration is clear.
“I don’t know if there would be a fly-half in world rugby who could have managed that night and that situation as well as Gareth did,” he told Rugby World in a previous interview. “You can talk about Jonny Wilkinson and all kinds of people but on the night, with what the squad wanted, what the team wanted, how the conditions ended up being, knowing how to play against Bristol, he literally was faultless.
“Not only was Gareth’s goalkicking faultless but his control of when to run, when to kick, when the team should be playing, when the team should be looking for pressure, was fantastic all night. His decision to take drop-goals and just eke out that score on the scoreboard was very well managed in such a hugely emotional game and physical game.”
Steenson kicked 24 points that night and then 17 more in another perfect kicking display as Exeter marked their Premiership debut with a 22-10 win v Gloucester in September 2010.
He has kept going in similar vein for more than a decade, amassing 2,630 points across 311 Chiefs appearances. His 1,651 Premiership points puts him fifth on the all-time list behind Englishmen Charlie Hodgson, Andy Goode and Stephen Myler and Kiwi Nick Evans, just five points above. None of those four eminent goalkickers, however, had to deal routinely with the capricious wind that is often part and parcel of a match experience at Sandy Park.
In tangible terms, Exeter have gleaned one Premiership title, one Champions Cup, one LV= Cup and one Anglo-Welsh Cup since their 2010 promotion, although that doesn’t do justice to what they have brought to the game. That Steenson has been pivotal to their success is self-evident because of the position he plays.
But Baxter highlights too Steenson’s role as emotional leader and spiritual guider, the way he has helped drive the work ethic and the culture. And the example he has set in behaving selflessly for the team.
“I think the big thing that Gareth doesn’t get the credit for is how long and how hard he’s actually worked for on a day-by-day, session-by-session basis. That’s the bit that sometimes gets left behind,” said Baxter of his long-time captain.
“There was a time when we would occasionally put him on the blind-side wing to to try to make his defence a little bit stronger. I can remember Gareth saying, ‘Come on, I don’t want this anymore, I want to be stood at ten in attack and defence, I don’t want to be going out to the wing’. And we said, ‘Well fine, but if you’re going to stand there you know what your responsibility is going to be’.
“And again, it’s something else in Gareth’s game that people wouldn’t know, he makes more tackles in training than any other player in the team. He practises his own tackle technique at least three times a week. Those are the bits that people don’t realise. He doesn’t just stand there and kick at goal, he does everything.
“That’s the kind of quality that shows why Steeno has been able to keep doing what he’s been doing. He’s become the player he has, and the leader he has, by dealing with the downsides. And also knowing how other members of the squad are feeling when they’re not involved.
“All those kinds of things that you can really use to benefit you if you want to, he’s dealt with very positively. He didn’t think, ‘Oh, that’s my time in the Premiership done’. I’ve seen a lot of players like that. I’ve seen players hit the heights and then once it doesn’t start going well it affects them for a long time.”
Steenson’s character showed itself from a young age. Born in Dungannon, he was talented enough to play in the Ireland U21 side that reached the World Championship final in 2004, and a year later started ahead of Johnny Sexton for the U21s.
Yet his development at Ulster was blocked by the presence of his idol, David Humphreys. So in 2006, aged 22, he got a boat from Belfast to Liverpool and drove to Rotherham in search of new opportunities. He left all his family and friends behind.
“It was very daunting,” Steenson once told Belfast Live. “I didn’t know anything about the area, I didn’t know anything really about the league (the RFU Championship). The only thing I knew was that Andre Bester was coach and that he was a hard-nosed sort of character. It was almost like a leap of faith. I never really had an opportunity at home, so when the opportunity comes you either go and give it a shot or you go and find a job.”
After one year with Rotherham, Steenson was picked up by Cornish Pirates and 30 games later he made his way to Exeter.
Ian Whitten, a fellow Ulster Academy graduate who is also on Exeter’s bench today, is three years younger than Steenson and didn’t really get to know him until he joined Exeter in 2012.
“At the time I arrived he was battling with Nacho (Mieres) for the starting spot. And I know he was a bit frustrated at that point in time because he wanted more game time,” Whitten told Rugby World in a previous interview.
“But as time went on on he graduated from being one of the lads, laughing and joking, good man for the craic. He’s still got that side to him but also he’s now one of the senior men in the squad, the one that delivers the team talks, gets us up for the games, reminds us what’s on the line and what it means to play for the club. How far the club’s come and the onus on us to keep it going.
“The competition for the shirt made him improve areas of his game. He definitely improved his defence. He probably improved a bit at playing to the line. He was always an amazing kicker, amazingly accurate, you can hang your hat on him. After he improved his defence, he was close to being the first name on the team sheet for years.”
In playing terms, Steenson has gone full circle. More than any other team, Chiefs like to keep their ten on the field and Steenson has become accustomed to a watching brief from the bench before replacing the current captain, Joe Simmonds, in the closing minutes. Against Racing last week, he didn’t come on at all.
Whatever unfolds at Twickenham today, he deserves to enter the fray one last time. Senior honours for Ireland may have eluded him but he has become a legend for Exeter Chiefs.
“He has shown the value of hard work and sticking at it,” said Whitten. “And believing in yourself when other people don’t. He got a raw deal at Ulster, I believe that. It’s testament to him that he didn’t give up, he kept fighting. That’s why he’s so popular with the (Chiefs) fans because everybody appreciates a man who’s had to do it the hard way.”
Steenson, who has been assisting Plymouth Albion as an attack coach for the past 12 months, has one last story to write before he joins Chiefs’ coaching staff next season.
“I always dreamed of going home to my country and maybe playing for Ulster. That was my goal when I left home,” he admitted in a recent BBC podcast. “And to come to a club (Exeter) now and see the growth of the place and be part of it, I wouldn’t sacrifice one minute of that for one or two caps for my country.
“If I can be part of a squad that is the first Exeter Chiefs squad to win the Heineken Cup and then hopefully a week later lift the Premiership title, I’ll put my cowboy hat on and walk off into the sunset and be pretty happy with that.”
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