Gareth Steenson is at home in Armagh this weekend, enjoying a two-day break from the rigours of pre-season training with Aviva Premiership new boys Exeter Chiefs.
Last season was an arduous but highly rewarding 11-month campaign during which he helped the Chiefs achieve their long-held ambition of a place at English club rugby’s top table.
Expect to hear a lot more of the 26-year-old Ulsterman as next term’s Premiership and Amlin Challenge Cup assaults unfold.
Exeter’s rigorous training regime — under the auspices of three tough Royal Marines — doesn’t faze the affable fly-half, even though it means 5.30am starts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for thoroughly gruelling schedules.
“We have three sessions — 45 minutes swimming, weights and then split into two groups, with forwards in the gym and backs on the pitch — done by nine o’clock.
“Tuesdays and Thursdays we’re out at 8am so we get a bit of a lie in those days,” he says.
The Dungannon-born and Armagh-raised player signed off the 2009/10 campaign on the highest of highs by scoring all of Exeter’s points in the 9-6 Sandy Park win in the Championship play-off against Bristol, followed by another 24 a week later at their rivals’ Memorial Grounds where the Chiefs won 29-10.
His half-a-dozen penalties and brace of drop goals in that return game took his tally for the season to a super 280 points.
“But only one try, which was a bit disappointing,” concedes Steenson.
“Over the years I’ve maybe been stereotyped as a stand-in-the-pocket kicking out-half, but I like to think that since going to England, where I’ve had some great coaches, there’s a lot more to my game than that now.”
Twickenham backroom staff doubtless will have taken note of his development for having lived in England since joining Rotherham in 2006, he is eligible to wear the white jersey as well as the green of his native land. Should he be tempted to switch he is likelyto incur the wrath of cousin, Allen Clarke, Ireland’s Under 20s’ coach.
Steenson has Irish Under 21 honours having played against New Zealand in the 2004 Junior World Cup Final in Glasgow. His team mates included Jamie Heaslip, Tomas O’Leary, Declan Fitzpatrick and Denis Fogarty plus fellow-Exeter Chiefs, Ulsterman Paul McKenzie and Connacht man David Gannon.
England’s spurious claims notwithstanding, Steenson’s Armagh roots run as deep as those of any Bramley apple tree.
His late father, John, was Armagh City FC’s chairman and as a youngster Gareth was a pretty useful round ball player. Then he began attending the Royal School Armagh.
“As soon as I went there I was going to be playing rugby,” he says.
From there he progressed to Queen’s University where he enjoyed two good seasons.
“Student rugby was a very good environment,” he adds.
Another two years at Dungannon and the Ulster Academy followed. But despite having been hailed as an emerging talent, somehow that undoubted ability never quite came to fruition on this side of the Irish Sea.
Enter Andre Bester, who, having failed to bring him to Belfast Harlequins — Steenson said no to a proposed move, preferring to stay at Dungannon where so many of his relatives live, his mother Helen being one of a family of 13 children born and bred there — finally managed to persuade the young player he rated so highly to follow him to Rotherham.
“I learned a lot from him,” Steenson reveals.
“Basically he said that if I didn’t get into games more I wouldn’t be playing. So I had to toughen up mentally as well as physically.”
Rotherham’s failure to clinch promotion — Leeds pipped them to the title — in Steenson’s first season saw the side break up. The out-half was part of the exodus, in his case moving to the south-west to join Cornish Pirates with whom he enjoyed “a good year”.
In the summer of 2008 he enlisted with Exeter and now, after two seasons, the Armagh man has made the grade. From now on he will be up against the best sides and individuals in English club football. He can’t wait.
“Since coming over to England, getting into the Premiership has been my ultimate goal. To go up with Exeter is fantastic,” he enthuses.
His mum, who travelled over to watch him play in the biggest game of his career to date, watched on proudly that May night as her son’s name was chanted by 3,000 ecstatic Chiefs’ fans who turned out again three days later to laud the Exeter players on their open top bus ride through the city centre.
“A brilliant experience,” is his description of that event.
Does he have any regrets about his decision to leave home and try his luck in England? No.
“It has been a steep learning curve, but as a player you want to push yourself to compete at the highest level. That wasn’t happening for me at home which is why I moved,” he says.
And he has a word of encouragement for any young players who may have begun to doubt themselves.
“Pretty much one to 15, we (Exeter) are guys who were told to look elsewhere because we weren’t going to make it at the clubs we were with,” he reveals.
“That made each of us want to prove a point and everybody stood up to be counted when they had to. All through last season we reminded ourselves that we were underdogs. But we believed we could do it and now we have.”
Watch out for him. Steenson is on the up and up.