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Returning Steenson a perfect ten after road less travelled

By Jonathan Bradley

Gareth Steenson's reaction on lifting the receiver to be greeted by a familiar accent speaks volumes for the man's fondness for home.

"It's great to hear the old lingo again!" says Steenson upon picking up the accent that greets him on the other end of the phone.

And so begins an interview with Ulster rugby's most prominent playing exile, the man who will wear the Exeter Chiefs number 10 jersey at the Kingspan Stadium in the Champions Cup this evening (7.45pm kick-off).

If things had been different, the Killylea man could have been running out at the ground every other weekend with 16,000 similar voices cheering him on.

As it is, his circuitous route to top flight rugby means tonight is the first professional game he has played in his home province for over 10 years.

Steenson was a Royal School Armagh classmate of Tommy Bowe, in the Ulster Academy with Chris Henry and Stephen Ferris, and an Ireland under-21 team-mate of Jamie Heaslip, but his path would diverge one afternoon in 2006.

It's a day that Steenson recalls with real clarity.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," he says.

"I was taken in to a room by Mark McCall, now over here himself of course (as Director of Rugby at double-winners Saracens), and he sat me down to tell me that David Humphreys was staying on for another year.

"He told me there was nothing really they could offer me and that my options were to go across the water, look for another club in Ireland or just look at doing something else."

It's an uncomfortable conversation that decision makers in rugby clubs the world over must have on an annual basis and for Steenson the future was suddenly unclear.

After dreams of turning out for his beloved Liverpool had subsided, playing for Ulster was his goal, something he had seemed to be well on his way to achieving.

Unsure of his next step, his nerves were settled by a conversation with mum Helen and his late father John, himself a former president at Armagh RFC.

He recalls: "I went home, talked to my parents and was just sort of saying 'What am I going to do here?'

"Andre Bester had been trying to get me to leave Dungannon for Belfast Harlequins for years before that but he'd went to Rotherham then and I went to join him.

"It was a leap of faith, I knew nothing of Rotherham or the Championship and it was a different journey. Maybe it made me a bit hard-nosed about the whole thing. Maybe it was a good thing.

"I had a lot of friends that I played with at under-21 level and then they were all getting contracts. I remember seeing those guys progress and just wondering what was going to happen to me. The route I took, it's not for everyone but means I would be in a position to say to young fellas at home, if it doesn't work out, there's more than four teams you can play for.

"Look at the Premiership, look at the Championship for that matter.

"There's young players there with aspirations that have gone on to play international rugby. You want to be part of the systems but you should want to be playing more.

"If you're not playing, you're not learning, you're not growing. I wouldn't say anything about Ulster - I can't say what would have happened if I'd stayed."

It remains one of the great what-ifs in Ulster's recent past. How would Steenson have developed had he been kept on at what was then Ravenhill? And what, indeed, would the impact have been on Paddy Jackson who, at just 24, is reaping the rewards of being undisputed first-choice for four seasons?

Steenson is more concerned with the road he did take and couldn't be happier as an Exeter Chief, a club where he will always be a hero after his performances in their promotion play-off six years ago.

While his young sons, Oscar and William, speak with a twang that is decidedly more Devon than Dungannon, and the traditional rugby player's pastime, golf, remains a bigger draw for Steenson than the south west's surfing scene that has pulled in some of his team-mates, perseverance means the journey that has brought him back to Belfast tonight could hardly be going better.

From Rotherham, he had a spell at Cornish Pirates before joining Exeter, who back then were a Championship club firmly ensconced in England's second tier.

The 32-year-old is one of a handful who have been at Sandy Park for the whole journey from there to Europe's top table and last season's Premiership final and, as such, objects to the idea that it has been a dream run for Rob Baxter's men.

"I've had the benefit of being here and seeing the progression - dream implies something that happened overnight. When I came in there was some serious graft going on here. It's always been a steady incline. "We never jumped too far, too quickly. We had a good bit of success, getting to a final, although we didn't win."

Now in their fourth year in Europe's top competition, Steenson finally got the draw he longed for when Exeter and Ulster were paired together in Pool Five.

"We were on a team building trip in the summer when the draw was made so my instant reaction was to find (his fellow Ulster native) Ian Whitten and we both just went 'yes!'

"We're very excited. It's been a long time since I've been back home and played a competitive rugby game there, over a decade I would say. I can't even remember it.

"When it came out I had a few messages from Tommy (Bowe) saying that he was looking forward to having us over and getting over to Exeter but we've kept it quiet since then. When the game is over we'll have a chat but it's all business at the minute.

"It's nice for me personally. There's part of my family who haven't been able to see me play for Exeter live, so it's a nice thing for them to be able to jump in a car, drive an hour up the road, and get to a game. Hopefully we put in a good performance."

While wife Karen, and of course Oscar and William, can be expected to lend their voices to Exeter's cause, what of divided loyalties among the rest of the clan?

"Purely for me, I like to think they'll put their Ulster support to one side for just Saturday!" he said.

"I do have a cousin who is a season ticket holder so this could be the first time he doesn't go in an Ulster shirt."

While the Sandy Park side went through to the last eight a year ago with three defeats, the loser of today's contest will know that their European prospects are bleak.

The visitors, much like Ulster, have spoken all week about needing to use the hurt and frustration of their last outing - the 35-8 defeat at home to Clermont - as a motivation.

"There's a bit of pressure, isn't there?" says Steenson in his understated manner.

"We were very disappointed by how it went for us last week, not even necessarily the result or the final score but more the manner in which we played. That's not us.

"We've had some harsh words among the boys because we haven't hit our straps this season. It's had a positive effect.

"Ulster have had a sticky patch after a great start. They had a good chance to get a win or even a point and it's going to be a huge game.

"It'll all add to the atmosphere, I'm sure."

So too, by the sounds of it, will that pocket of Armagh accents cheering on the Chiefs.

Belfast Telegraph


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