Tyrone Howe: Gareth Steenson has to be on Irish radar now
A month ago, on the opening weekend of the football season, Blackpool shocked the rest of the Premier League by registering a 4-0 victory against Wigan Athletic.
Two weeks ago the Exeter Chiefs embarked on their own Aviva Premiership odyssey by doing a similar job on their opponents Gloucester.
The two teams fared rather differently in their respective second weeks. While Blackpool suffered the biggest reality check by losing 6-0 to Arsenal, the Chiefs more than held their own, albeit succumbing in a close defeat to Leicester.
Most, myself included, were expecting the current Premiership champions to put Exeter in their place, particularly as the Tigers were smarting from a mauling at the hands of their rivals Northampton Saints.
While performance is the key driver for victory, in a league situation points count for everything, as Ulster found to their benefit last Saturday in Italy.
Nevertheless, even in defeat Exeter will take enormous confidence out of the fact that they visited the Welford Road fortress, acquitted themselves admirably and came away justifiably disappointed. Self-belief counts for so much and the Chiefs will now feel that they can go head-to-head with any team in the Premiership.
A feature of Exeter’s performances thus far has been the superb introduction to the top flight for former Dungannon outhalf, Gareth Steenson.
Against Gloucester, Steenson pulled the strings in a man of the match performance.
His personal haul of four penalties, a conversion and drop goal continued where he left off in last year’s Championship and set the platform for Exeter’s flying start.
His appearance against the Tigers saw him pitted against another Irish qualified outhalf in Jeremy Staunton, who was standing in for England ten, Toby Flood. At one stage the former Munster player was regarded as the next big thing in Irish rugby, however he remains very much an enigma. He undoubtedly suffered by being in Ronan O’Gara’s shadow, but because of his talent he was tried out in several positions without ever really being able to nail down a first team place. The proverbial utility player struggled because of this label.
Steenson is in a slightly different situation. Despite Ireland honours at Schools, U19’s and U21’s level, he never really hit the headlines here in Ulster. Despite his kicking prowess, other aspects of his game came into question, for example his pace and ability to get a backline moving.
Choosing to ply his trade outside Ulster has proved the making of the Dungannon man. Rather than settle for AIL club rugby Steenson took the far more difficult decision to take himself out of the comfort zone. Hard work and a commitment to continuous improvement provide a salutary lesson to other young players of what can be achieved by taking the road less travelled.
Steenson’s name is already written into Exeter rugby folklore, because his boot was the single biggest reason in the club winning promotion to England’s elite. One also suspects that Steenson’s existence will be that much richer, and I don’t mean in monetary terms, for the experience that he is gaining.
It will be interesting to plot the course and development not only of his West Country team but of Steenson himself, for whom this season will be a massive test and learning curve. With ROG’s best days behind him, clearly Ireland will be looking for more candidates than Jonathan Sexton to put their hands up for selection. Steenson might be doing it his own way, but if he continues on his upward trajectory Ireland will have no choice but to recognise him by including him in one of their extended training squads.
After four games in the Premier League, Blackpool have pushed on from their mauling at the hands of the Gunners and currently occupy fourth place. After only two matches in rugby’s Premiership, Exeter currently lie in fifth. How dearly both clubs would love to remain in the top half of their leagues. It’s early days but the new kids on the block of both the round and oval ball are doing just fine. Go the underdog.