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Ulsterman getting his kicks with the Chiefs

by Chris Hewett

Exeter are the good news story of the moment: they have announced themselves as Premiership title contenders by sticking 41 points on big-spending Wasps - away from home, mind you - yet live within their means financially; they have some of the best home-produced talent in the country, from Jack Nowell and Henry Slade to Sam Hill and Luke Cowan-Dickie; their head coach, Rob Baxter, is a man of the people who speaks with the wisdom of Solomon. All things considered, there is very little not to like.

Yet the story of now is rooted in the story of then - "then" being the promotion play-off game with Bristol at the Memorial Ground in May 2010. The Devonians had been second favourites to secure access to the elite division that night, yet their 29-10 victory was utterly decisive. All but five of those points came from the boot of the outside-half Gareth Steenson: half a dozen penalties, two drop goals. His performance bordered on the pitiless.

The most striking thing about Steenson five-and-a-half years on is that he is still there at the heart of the Exeter team, as are several others who either played against Bristol or were part of the first-team squad: the backs Phil Dollman and Matt Jess, the scrum-half Haydn Thomas, the props Brett Sturgess and Ben Moon, the flanker Tom Johnson.

Baxter has made some important signings, from both home and abroad, since the rise to Premiership status, but that continuity - that refusal to ditch the players who got them there for fear that they would not be able to keep them there - is at the heart of his achievement.

"I decided a while ago that I couldn't keep on going into the dressing room and saying 'don't worry about losing that game; we're new here'. There had to be a toughening of attitude if we were to progress and some of that had to come from the inside of the group - from the 'core'.

"Gareth has been very important in that. Some professional players still look at Exeter and see it as a nice, friendly place to be. If I'm the only one telling people that we're more than that, it doesn't work. We need people like Gareth to drive standards, and he does."

Steenson is one of life's "under the radar" players, perhaps because the man and woman in the union street always assume he will be shoved aside by some big-name No 10 or other as Exeter move onwards and upwards. A few seasons ago, the Argentine Test player Ignacio Mieres looked to be the one. More recently, Slade has been the most talked-about man in town.

Yet Mieres quickly faded into anonymity - he is currently in France, playing second-tier rugby for Dax - while Slade spends far more time at No 13 than he does in the pivot role.

And now that the young saviour of the England midfield is crocked, Steenson appears set fair for another long tour of duty in Exeter's starting line-up. Fast closing in on the 1,000-point mark in Premiership rugby, he should break into the top 10 all-time scoring list over the next 18 months or so. At which point, he may receive some proper recognition from outside the confines of Sandy Park.

Heaven knows, he deserves it. Had Slade shown some of Steenson's touches with the boot during the victory over Wasps there would have been hosannas from on high. And at 31, the Ulsterman's appetite for the rough and tumble is still there.

Indeed, he will be among the first out of the trenches when Exeter host the crack French team Clermont Auvergne in tonight's big European Champions Cup game. "What do we expect from Clermont? We assume we'll be facing a lot of very good individual players who can make you look really silly if you're not on your game," he says. "And we expect them to be very powerful as a forward unit, so we'll have to muscle up there. But from our point of view, we believe we can put them under pressure. And when you apply pressure, you're in the contest.

"This is an important moment for us. We lost our first European game down at Ospreys because we weren't in the right place mentally - a hangover, I think, from the previous week's league game with Leicester. We'd put a lot of ourselves into that one, but that doesn't excuse our performance in Wales. It was disappointing, and Rob made that very clear afterwards. He thought we'd gone past that frailty. So did I."

Steenson hails from Dungannon and initially had designs on a full life in Irish rugby. David Humphreys - then a fully-fledged international 10, now the big cheese at Gloucester - did for those best-laid plans. "I joined the Ulster academy at 18 and left when I was 22," Steenson says. "In that time, I never got closer than the bench. Truthfully, I never really got anywhere. How could I, being behind someone like David? He was my Jonny Wilkinson. So when the chance of a run in English Second Division rugby with Rotherham came along, I thought it was time to either give it a go over there or get myself a different job.

"I always had belief in my own ability, but I never seemed to be in the right place at the right time. I got to thinking that Ulster were never going to give me a chance.

"And I'd say this to a lot of people, especially youngsters on the fringes at big English clubs, or talented lads over in Ireland: if you're not getting a chance where you are, the Second Division here is not a bad place to be. Quite the opposite, as I hope I've proved."

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