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Steenson relishing chance to get kicks against Leinster

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

For Gareth Steenson, leaving Ulster wasn't a choice. One door closing meant that he had a choice - move abroad and try and sustain his rugby career or take up life among the civilians.

The offer on the table was from Exeter Chiefs who, in 2008, were an ambitious club still fighting for promotion from the English second tier.

Steenson heard good things about the set-up and gave it a shot. Almost a decade later, he has a Premiership medal in his back pocket and was honoured by the club with a testimonial.

Whenever he chooses to retire, the 33-year-old will always have a place in Sandy Park hearts, but he has work to do before then.

Exeter are not satisfied with their lot and currently lead the league by some distance. Their key focus this year, however, is on Europe and doing the tag of English champions proud.

And that could mean bad news for Leinster, who are two points ahead of the Devon team ahead of their visit to Sandy Park on Sunday.

It's all a world away from the place the youngster found himself having struggled to make the grade at his home province.

"I never had a choice, there was nothing for me at the time," he said of his big decision.

"It was either go find a real job or get out there."

Now the Dungannon man is looking forward rather than backwards. A senior player in the Chiefs set-up, he has seen what can come with hard work and clear planning and is not content to sit back and enjoy last year's success.

"We are completely new Premiership champions, it's new for the club and it was always going to be a different challenge, but we're in a really good place in the Premiership and in a good position in Europe," he said.

"We had never really started well in Europe before, so that has been a bit of a focus for us.

"To be in this position now going into the back-to-back fixtures and playing a team that has won two games like us is very exciting going into Sunday's fixture."

Impressive Director of Rugby Rob Baxter puts it all together and makes it tick.

"When I first arrived he was forwards coach, in charge, just learning the straps. He wasn't long out of playing himself," he said.

"He's very good at letting us express ourselves and very hard when he needs to be. He's learning along the way, I feel I spent my pro career growing alongside him. We have a nice relationship.

"We haven't always seen eye to eye, but I think that happens in most cases.

"It is an exciting group of guys. I get to play with a lot of guys who are starting to shine on the international stage - Henry Slade, Sam Simmons, Jack Nowell, my old friend (Ulsterman) Ian Whitten. It's always a fun style of rugby and everyone is excited to play.

"We've had a good start every time we've played, we've won or lost with a bonus point and felt we could get better as a group.

"That's key. There's no point looking too far down the line as you can get caught out very quickly."

Sunday's game, Steenson says, represents an examination of their progress.

"Leinster are a very strong outfit," he said.

"They have a host of internationals. They have a high-class pedigree in the competition. They've started well and getting maximum points is no mean feat. I'm very excited about the game.

"We know we have got to be on our mettle. It's probably a good test of what we've done over the last five years.

"Back then they were just off the back of winning the Champions Cup. It's a very exciting fixture."

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