Kicking off David Challis’ series looking back at careers of great Premiership players who are reaching the twilight of their careers is the great Gareth Steenson. There seemed no better place to start than the man that guided Exeter Chiefs all the way from a mid-table Championship side to the Champions of England.
Early Days at Ulster
From an early age, Steenson was marked out as one to watch. He linked up with the Ulster academy in his teenage years before joining Ireland’s age-group sides and captaining the under-21s at Junior World Cup.
Things all seemed to be progressing as expected for the young fly-half. However, just as his professional career was about to kick off the door was shut in his face. Ulster told him there was no place for him in his early twenties. This left Steenson with a decision to make, abandon a dream of professional rugby seek opportunities elsewhere.
Leap of Faith Across the Irish Sea
Rotherham Titans came calling for the promising talent in 2006. Steenson was initially hesitant to take such a risk travelling to England. However, with support from his parents, he took the leap and he was glad he did.
Rotherham finished second in Gareth Steenson’s first season, amassing over 250 points as an ever-present at fly-half. Such as success saw Cornish Pirates come in for the Irishmen so he moved down to the south-west in 2007.
Again, Steenson caught the eye for Pirates becoming the Championship’s top scorer in that season. Another 250-point haul and a string of stunning performances saw the man cast off by Ulster starting to really make a name for himself.
Chiefs Come Calling
Then came the call that would link Steenson and Chiefs for over a decade. He joined in a side 2008 that was full of ambition looking to progress. Famously one of the toughest leagues across the world, the Championship proved a tough beast to tame.
However, in 2010 the dream was realised. In the play-offs against Bristol, Steenson guided them to a 9-6 victory in the first leg at Sandy Park. Before he put in a calm and assured performance away from home in order to see his side reach the pinnacle for the first time in its history.
Adjusting to Premiership Life
Exeter were given little chance of surviving in the Premiership with most expecting them to come straight back down. However, Gareth Steenson steered his side to ten league wins and an eighth placed finish in their first season.
Chiefs kept building from here, gradually rising up the league with Steenson an ever-present at fly-half. The Heineken Cup began to become a regular fixture at Sandy Park. However, as the games got bigger Steenson has never lost sight of the importance of the weekly grind in the Premiership.
Speaking earlier this year, Steenson said; “There’s no such thing as an easy game in the Premiership, trust me on that. You’ve got to perform every week and if you don’t perform just five per cent off, you’re going to lose”.
After falling just short to perennial champions Saracens in 2016, Steenson returned to Twickenham after his side vanquished their famous foes in the semi-final. In a game that ebbed and flowed into extra time against Wasps, it was Steenson who landed the killer blow.
Reaching the pinnacle of English rugby is thus far Steenson’s greatest achievement in a Chiefs shirt. In that same season, he was named in the team of the year as well as the top-points scoring underlying his importance to the side.
Steenson has since returned to the Premiership final but with no further success. European success has also alluded the Exeter talisman but with time still left on the clock who knows how his career will end up.
Calling Sandy Park Home
Gareth Steenson joined just two years after Exeter Chiefs moved from the County Ground to Sandy Park. A ground that most see as one of the great grounds in English rugby and is something that Steenson will always cherish.
“It’s always a special occasion when you get to play at Sandy Park”
Moving to England to chase his dream of professional rugby panned out for Steenson. He is an example of hard work and perseverance. Not everyone’s journey to the top is straightforward and Steenson demonstrates this. However, the experiences of rejection are likely what spurred the man on to achieve what he has.
An Over-looked International Prospect?
During the 2010s Steenson was looked upon as on the finest fly-halves in Europe. However, owing to the fact he played his rugby outside Ireland he was never eligible for an international call-up. This was in spite of a lack of depth in the position on the Emerald Isle.
Things may have panned out differently for Steenson should he have returned to Ireland to ply his trade. However, it is the mark of his loyalty that he continued down in Exeter, putting the club ahead of his own international ambitions.
It is clear there is no animosity towards the situation from Steenson’s end. When asked earlier in the season about other players away on international duty he noted that “we want to be having guys of performing at international level”.
Changing of the Guard at Chiefs
As Steenson reaches the twilight of his career, the heir to the Exeter number ten shirt has emerged. Going into the 2019/20 season Joe Simmonds seems to have overtaken Gareth Steenson as the number one choice. However, this has not stopped Steenson put in some dazzling performances against the likes of Gloucester away at Kingsholm.
With one more year left on his contract, Steenson looks set to see himself out after the end of the 2021 season. He will leave behind a glittering club career as one of Exeter and the Premiership’s greatest ever players.
Reflecting on what has changed at the club during his time Steenson was quick to point out the building up of their culture. With the emergence of the Chiefs academy producing local and national stars Steenson now takes on the role of elder statesman helping those guys through.
“These are guys who probably grew up wanting to play for the chiefs which is great. When I came through it was more guys coming in from all over the place. But now you’re getting to see the development of the academy system.”
Life Beyond Rugby
Outside of rugby, Gareth Steenson opened an Irish Pub with former Chiefs star Carl Rimmer in 2018. The successful business is likely to tie him down to the south-west for the near future. As is his current coaching commitments at Plymouth Albion where he is aiding their National One campaign.
Most expect Steenson to remain at Exeter in some form of coaching capacity after he hangs up his boots. He will be leaving behind a career that at one stage threatened to never get started. However, after taking a leap of faith to England and eventually Exeter Chiefs he was able to realise his dreams and potential as one of the best fly-halves in recent memory.
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