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How Ulster exile Steenson stayed ahead of the game with smart move to Exeter

By David Kelly

As three-year-old Oscar Steenson, daily, greedily gathers an extended vocabulary, Dad Gareth can sense more and more the distinctive tongue of his elder boy.

Though half his brother's age, William's burgeoning blether is already, too, soaked in warm Devon burr.

This is the beginning of their life's journey.

"It's hard not to notice the twang," confirms Gareth, whose utterly distinctive Dungannon tenor reminds one that his path has been rather more long and winding.

He won't thank Ian Whitten, his Exeter colleague, but it was his fellow exiled Ulster man who reminded the vast number of us who may have quite forgotten about Gareth Steenson's enduring ability.

"There aren't that many good 10s in Ireland," said Whitten, in February, of his club captain and all-time record points scorer, as Ireland grappled with their flimsy out-half resources.

"Gareth has been very, very unlucky not to have been capped by Ireland."

Steenson, who left home to join Rotherham as a 22-year-old, has spent a decade in England and is one of the small coterie of players who have been with the unfashionable Sandy Park outfit since their astonishing rise from Championship also-rans to Champions Cup contenders.

"I was an Ulster boy growing up in Ulster," he says ahead of today's Premiership final against Saracens.

"My ambition was to play for Ulster and Ireland. I went a different route. It wasn't my ambition to play for Exeter Chiefs as a boy. That's the way life goes."

You take the road that is laid for you. From Dungannon to the Ulster Academy was, he had once assumed, the opening straight; David Humphreys would prove to be an insurmountable roadblock.

And so to England; an exile prompted by a numbers game rather than any deficiency on his part as, surely, his unfolding career has steadfastly proven.

He joined the then sleepy Exeter in 2008; when they made the play-offs against Bristol two years later, few expected them to progress; Steenson scored all but five points in a stunning coup and, suddenly, the big time beckoned.

Rob Baxter has mixed rugby smarts with homespun wisdom to slowly develop a formidable outfit - despite being denied nearly €7m in five years by the moneyed Premiership "elite".

Where once it may have seemed necessary to out-source a big name out-half, Steenson has not only been retained; more, he has maintained his personal and professional growth in tandem with one of the sport's truly feel-good tales.

"You have to if you want to improve," he asserts. "You can see the calibre of players in England and Europe. You need to be able to perform well to compete and keep the shirt next week.

"I've worked on a lot of aspects of my game, my defence, for example, has only really developed over the last couple of years. You see my age so that might tell you a lot. I only got to that point now.

"So I'm always improving and there are so many young guys here chomping at the bit trying to get ahead of you. We have more and more internationals so you're trying to keep up with guys as well as fending off others.

"I'm different, I was four years in the Championship. I developed in a different way to a lot of the younger guys who play well and start in teams. I was 26 when I made my debut in the Premiership.

"There's no right or wrong way, that's the way I did. It was a great experience for me, I have grown up with this club and now I am playing in the elite of England and Europe. I am proud of the way this club has progressed.

"We wanted to be in the top four of England, now we want to be champions. We're in Champions Cup whereas last season was the Challenge Cup.

"This is our progression. This is my progression."

Belfast Telegraph


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