A Legendary Career
Gareth Steenson was born in 1984 in Northern Ireland. Gareth burst onto the scene in England at his previous club, Cornish Pirates, scoring 264 points in his first season (30 games). After joining The Exeter Chiefs, Gareth played a massive part in the final leg of the 2009-10 Championship final against Bristol Rugby, scoring 24 points, helping Exeter Chiefs win 29-10 (38-16 including the first leg) securing the club’s ascension to the Premiership.
Gareth narrowly missed out on the Golden Boot by one point to Premiership rival Freddie Burns at the 2012/13 Aviva Premiership awards but later won the Golden Boot in the 2016 Aviva premiership awards. In 2017 he played an integral part in the Exeter Chiefs becoming Aviva Premiership Champions defeating Wasps 20-23 in extra time.
Known affectionately to fans as Steeno, Gareth is also qualified to play for England through English residency.
NAME: Gareth Steenson
HEIGHT: 5’10 (1.78m)
WEIGHT: 13st 9lbs (87kg)
PREVIOUS CLUBS: Cornish Pirates, Rotherham,
DEBUT: 30 September 2008 v Esher (A)
HONOURS: Ireland U21s, U19s, Schools
Click here to read a fantastic tribute to Steeno by Exeter Chiefs' Will Hooley
It’s a 10 for 10! From Championship to Premiership Finals. A decade of history for the man from Dungannon and the Exeter Chiefs
It’s like a marksman behind his rifle, an archer before his release, or even a golfer addressing the ball, a man from Dungannon takes few paces back to gather himself, keeping it simple, keeping it controlled, before delivering the precise shot.
Never mind the Chunk Pasty, the Otter beer or the Tomahawk Chop, Sandy Park has no better experience than being witness to a ball sailing between the posts and the elongated cry of ‘Steeeeeeno’ that soon follows.
Going into his impressive 10th year at Exeter, Gareth Steenson may be regarded as part of the furniture at the Chiefs. The Northern Irishman has sown himself into playing a pivotal role in the fantastic story of Exeter Chiefs’ surge to the top of English and European rugby.
Like all good testimonials, stories are shared, and there are trips down memory lane, which range from the ‘good to the bad’ and, probably more fittingly, the ‘ugly’ to the ‘messy’.
It’s a hard task to try and describe everything that Steenson and the club have been through over the last 10 years. After all, when looking back to the first of his near 200 appearances for the Chiefs, its like “chalk and cheese”.
So welcome to the celebration. It’s ten for the Exeter number ten: a period when the rise of the Chiefs, and of Steenson himself, have gone hand in hand.
Steenson’s first memory of Sandy Park would actually occur when playing against the Chiefs.
“I was playing for Rotherham. I remember coming down the night before staying at the Thistle Hotel before being driven down Topsham Road towards the ground. There were no stands behind the posts. It was the big fixture of the year and we were told that we were going to get battered up front and that Tony Yapp was going to kick all the points! Funnily enough, exactly that happened, we got hammered on the day!”
Defeat was something that many others clubs, not just Rotherham, would experience throughout the course of the season as the Chiefs made their multi-million pound home a fortress in the Championship.
“It was an easy decision to sign for Exeter, you could see the club was only going in one direction. The infrastructure was immense, and they seemed to be bringing in all the best players from the South West”, says Steenson, who the year previous was plying his trade just down the A30 at local rivals Cornish Pirates.
From a career point of view, it was evident that the once Ulster Academy player, believed his development would surge ahead at the Devonshire club. However, few people know that the move to Exeter was for more emotionally important reasons, far bigger than rugby itself.
“My eagerness to move to the Chiefs was due to the tough year I had within my family. I lost my father in October of the year and I found myself travelling home every weekend. It wasn’t easy to get back home from Cornwall, in fact it would take up to nine or so hours to get from door to door. Meanwhile, Exeter had the airport on its doorstep and I could get back home to see my mother in two to three hours.”
Steenson’s wishes, both as player and family member, were fulfilled when he signed on the dotted line for the Chiefs in the summer of 2008. As with all good success stories, it wasn’t all plain sailing during his first year for his new club.
“We missed a couple of opportunities in that season. Two back-to-back games against Moseley, and a memorable game against Leeds where we lost. I had a kick on the halfway line, and although I had been kicking pretty well in the game, I completely slipped, fell on my backside and the ball fell under the bar. It was at that moment that myself and the team knew we were too far away from getting promoted that year.”
Exeter were established as one of the strongest sides in English rugby’s second tier, yet for one reason or another they could not quite get themselves over the finishing line. For Steenson it was about getting the right people in at the right time, after which, events would take care of themselves.
Part of that process saw the Chiefs dispense with the services of then Director of Rugby, Pete Drewett, replacing him at the helm with one of his own lieutenants, Rob Baxter.
Baxter, a stalwart of the Devon club for 14 years as a player, ten of which he served as captain, saw a change in operations, bringing together not only a new coaching team, but a change in philosophy which, ultimately, would prove the missing ingredient.
Propelled to the frontline, Baxter quickly set about his battle plan for the new season, of which Steenson, and fellow fly-half Danny Gray, were entrusted with guiding the troops through on-field battle.
“Rob was predominantly a forwards coach so didn’t really have a lot of dealings with us. He told me and Danny to pretty much run the backline and trusted we’d do the job.
“Rob wasn’t far fetched, he did what he knew and obviously entrusted us with the attack. We had plenty of other senior guys in there to help as well, such as the likes of Stephen Ward and Tony Yapp, who knew what our game was about,” Steenson explains.
“Don’t get me wrong, I did at one point think that maybe I should put in my CV that I had a small coaching role with Exeter.”
Baxter’s trust in Steenson was evident from the outset and even now, years down the line, the Irishman is still tasked with the role of leading from the front alongside a handful of those who still remain from that final Championship year.
By 2009-10, their play-off winning year, the Chiefs had developed a ‘winning mentality’. That was down to the players and coaches, many of whom remain part and parcel of the club today. Forget Manchester United’s ‘Class of 98’, these were the Exeter ‘Originals’.
“I remember even on my first day being put into pre-season teams and Matt Jess, who had arrived when I joined, was put in the same team. For the next seven or eight years Jessy and I would continue to be put together! The big difference was always that Jessy was (and still is) in much better condition than myself,” Steenson chuckles.
“I remember Tom Johnson always being one of the fittest guys, smashing the fitness tests and usually showing his great physique by having his top off. Phil Dollman, was certainly more chunkier back then to what he is now, and like Phil, Haydn Thomas, my half-back partner for many years, certainly had a thicker hairline back in the old days too!
“Ben Moon was a very young kid back in my early days, in fact he was part of the Academy. I now sit next to Ben in the changing room and feel like he is the same age as me, even though he’s about six years younger!
“Then of course you had Tom Hayes, Richie Baxter, Brett Sturgess all incredible characters and players in their own right,” Steenson recalls.
It was a well-moulded team that had come together under Baxter, who had also recruited Ali Hepher from Northampton Saints to the coaching staff.
Steenson admits it was “a great move to help the attack”. Nothing was left to chance as the club prepared for the final showdown in the two-legged play-off final against Bristol.
“We did things out of the ordinary. We came into training at 5pm, we’d then do our training and be told to stay up until 2am so we were prepared for these evening promotion games. Our fitness guy Paddy Anson believed that we had to be ‘in sync’ to play at night, we were too used to playing at 3pm in the afternoon,” continued Steenson.
No matter how bizarre, it certainly did the trick. From a 9-6 victory at Sandy Park, Steenson and his team went on to beat Bristol 29-10 in the second leg on a night all Exeter fans will cherish for eternity.
Steenson would never brag about it, but he was immense in the final leg, coming into his own in atrocious conditions at the Memorial Stadium, slotting a remarkable six penalties and two drop-goals to walk away with a personal tally of 24 points.
“Our mentality was about going to win two games of rugby,” said Steenson. “Do that and the scoreline takes care of itself. I can’t picture it all being on the pitch at Sandy Park, but I remember the game at Bristol much more.
“Our game plan actually changed slightly, as just before kick-off the rain came down and we realised that we had to kick the leather off the ball more and rely on our chase.
“I remember running off after the warm up in moulded studs, slightly panicked that I’d have to change my boots. Ali Hepher told me that if you get drop-goal opportunities then just go for them. I felt good in the warm up and I remember going up to Tommy Hayes and telling him if we got penalties in range, let me just go for it.
“We genuinely believed we would win it, we organised a social after the game, win or lose, we had absolute confidence that this team would do the job and at no point did we think about losing.”
The Chiefs certainly stuck to their winning plan that day, and maybe the impromptu incentive at half time may explain Exeter and Steenson’s surge to victory.
Queue celebrations and hysteria, not just amongst the players and the squad itself, but for the thousands of fans who had joined in unison to form part of a vocal travelling Tribe.
“The post-match presentation was actually in the changing room due to a pitch invasion. We crowded in, sprayed our champagne everywhere and we were handed the Championship Trophy there and then. The buzz of getting the trophy handed to just us in the changing room was really quite cool.
“After all we had been through, we could just take that moment for ourselves. It was only later that we saw all the fans out in the soaking wet on the pitch.
“It was one of those moments that you couldn’t replicate. I don’t think even if we won the Premiership you could replicate the sheer joy, relief and unbelievable feeling that moment brought.”
The celebrations went well into the night as Devon came to the realisation that one of its favourite teams would be on its way into the big lights of Premiership rugby.
“I remember sitting at 6am the next morning on the halfway line with Simon Allcott ready for the social to start, still not realising what we had achieved,” said Steenson.
“We went to Tesco at 5am in the morning and then just sat there with a keg of beer and a few Cubans and watched the sun come up! There was something like an eight-page spread in the Express and Echo the following morning with a simple title saying ‘Premiership…here we come!’”
And so it was, Steenson and his compatriots found themselves starting pre-season with an adventure in front of them. The hangover had past and the High Street had calmed down after the bus parade. It was now a matter of getting down to business.
“I went on holiday to Tunisia, and once I had sobered up within the first week I was back in the gym. That was very unlike me as usually I’d take my four weeks off and make the most of it. However, the excitement of knowing we were in the Premiership, and seeing the first round of fixtures come out, made me evermore determined to be fit and ready.”
With a squad roughly unchanged from the Championship, Steenson recalls the feelings going in to their first Premiership game against local rivals, Gloucester.
“Everyone had signed up to play at Chiefs the following year after that Bristol promotion game, no matter what. That in itself definitely made us tighter as a squad, knowing we would all still be playing with each other,” Steenson says.
“We were told we would go straight back down. We had a bit of a chip on our shoulders but were determined to enjoy ourselves. Win or lose on away trips on the bus was always a good atmosphere. In fact, I remember getting beat by Northampton by 40 odd points that season, but we had one of the best bus trips back.”
Put the stereotypical post-match drink to one side, Steenson and the Chiefs were determined to hold their own in the Premiership and they started off by doing just that.
“We beat Gloucester first game and thought to ourselves if we could beat Gloucester, who beat Leicester many times before, then we could go and beat Leicester. Winning that first game put us in a great spot and although we didn’t beat Leicester, we had played well and felt confident in our ability starting off in the Premiership.”
The rise to the top league of English rugby also meant an automatic spot in Europe, something the club had not experienced before, and it gave the players, staff and supporters even more reason to be animated.
“We had Bourgoin first European game away on a Friday night. The excitement among the lads was huge; we were going to enjoy ourselves. We were no longer driving up to Sedgley Park or somewhere like that, we were getting on a plane to France!” Steenson remarks.
“We went over there and won our first game in Europe! We thought, hang on a second we do belong here! It’s probably no surprise but we thoroughly enjoyed Bourgoin’s hospitality a lot, maybe even a lot more than just ‘a lot’!”
For Steenson and the Chiefs, the first year in the Premiership provided a great platform to build on going forward. The Devonshire club had a newfound respect from its rivals in the league and became an attractive club for players to move to.
Steenson remembers 2012 only too well, as he sat most of the season behind Argentine rival Ignacio Mieres, who led the Chiefs to an impressive fifth in the Premiership, which in turn brought with it Heineken Cup status.
“I was demoted for a year watching Mieres, it was my first experience of being rung up and told that I wasn’t playing. I had disagreements with Rob about it at the time, but I was young and just wanted to play,” added Steenson.
“There’s no doubt it made me better though and Rob probably knows that. It made me appreciate every time I was out on the pitch playing.”
Steenson would continue to have to fight for his place through the next few seasons. The rise of young Academy star Henry Slade provided further competition.
“First time I saw Henry up at the club I thought he was the most natural gifted player I’d seen, but clearly needed to put a bit of beef on. I remember a few of the senior guys thinking he maybe needed to harden up a bit, but in no time we saw that kid had a bit more about him than just natural talent. I knew I had to up my game again if I was going to keep my position.”
With high competition and the club now in the crème de la crème of European Heineken Cup rugby, competing against the likes of French juggernauts Toulon, Steenson and Exeter’s standards had to rise.
The Northern Irishman recalls how “there was a huge buzz heading into the Heineken Cup for the first time and to be playing Leinster, the champions, in Dublin for our first game was a huge occasion not just for the club but for myself.”
“It was the first real chance for some of my family to see the Chiefs live in action and to play against a lot of my old teammates from under age rugby. This definitely drove me on to want to perform to the best of my ability.”
Heineken Cup rugby gave Steenson and the Chiefs a taste of top flight European competition, and like any hungry beginner, fed their desire for more of the same, driving them on to target a top six finish in the Premiership for the coming seasons.
Fast forward to the season of 2015 -2016, if ever there was a year that illustrated the fruition of Devon’s finest and Steenson then this was it.
Exeter climbed the ladder in Europe making it through to the club’s first-ever European Champions Cup quarter-final. It was also the season that gave the Chiefs a place at the Premiership Final. Furthermore, it was a year that Steenson became a captain and record breaker for the club.
“That year we had a very good balance between having to perform at the weekend and also enjoying ourselves,” continued Steenson.
“Rob recruited well bringing in the likes of Julian Salvi and Geoff Parling who knew all about getting to finals when they were at Leicester. We had a big squad who were hungry and were chomping at the bit to be in the side.
“It really felt that now was the time we belonged at the top of table and should be going to finals. We began to target games in Europe and I remember how we beat Clermont Auvergne at home and really felt that we deserved to win by the way we performed. Equally, I remember how disappointed we were in not beating the Ospreys away from home.”
As the games rattled by, Steenson became even more of a points machine, surpassing Tony Yapp’s long-standing record of 1526 points for the club.
“It was always nice throughout the season having people come up to you saying that I was close to the record. I feel that I’ve been lucky enough to be at a club for a long time and really enjoy myself, so I was able to accumulate all those points,” Steenson suggests.
“It’s certainly something that when I hang my boots up I’ll be very proud about, but in that season I was well and truly focussed on just helping the team get the results so we could get to the final.”
On the 28th May 2016, Steenson lead out the Chiefs at a packed out Twickenham, to take on Saracens and try and reach Premiership stardom.
It seemed fitting that Steenson would be entrusted with the leadership on that day. Two weeks before, the Dungannon-born playmaker was voted Players’ Player of the season, probably the highest accolade you can receive as a player, being applauded by your own teammates. Nevertheless, the team’s MVP was fixed on the task of defeating the defending champions.
“We always knew we had the better of Sarries on our day, we had proven that in the past.” Steenson suggests.
“I don’t think the occasion got to us but it was our first ‘big day out’. We had arrived at the ground late and were flummoxed by the amount of fans waiting for us to arrive at the Lions Gate banging on the bus.
“We didn’t start the game well, that never set us in a great place. Although coming back, it was too little too late,” Steenson remarks. “We learnt a lot from that day and it has put us in better stead in the big games we have played since.”
It wouldn’t be the day that the man from Dungannon lifted the trophy but it certainly showed just how far he and the club had progressed.
The journey is not over. This year Baxter’s side have held on to ‘top four status’ and want to push for bigger and better things in Europe. However, one thing for sure is that Steenson’s boots, like any club legend, will eventually be hung up. Contrary to popular belief in the Library, he is only human after all.
Steenson has embedded himself in Exeter Rugby history, a man who is one of the ‘originals’ and a driving force in the club’s success. Many Exeter fans feel that he has done more than enough to merit an Irish call up. It never came. Ireland’s loss has been Exeter’s gain.
He now calls Devon his home, where he lives with wife Karen and their two boys, William and Oscar. His focus will, of course, be on continuing to bring up his kids in the best way, and who knows, we may yet see another Steenson in a Exeter shirt soon enough.
“They love coming to the home games and walking round the pitch at the end. It means so much for them just to run around and kick the ball at Sandy Park; usually their met with a chant of ‘Steeeeeeno!” chuckles Steenson.
“I’m not sure I’ll be pushing them into rugby. I’d like the idea of one, or both, becoming a Rory McIlroy!”
Steenson would probably describe himself as being as fit as he’s been. Although in his thirties, the Northern Irishman still wishes to play for as long as possible. Nevertheless, when the inevitable retirement day comes it will be a sad one for team-mates, fans, family and Steenson himself. So what will he miss?
“I’ve seen supporters follow me from the Championship to where we are now. I’ll miss not hearing the Tomahawk Chop and sharing a beer with them in the bar after a game,” remarks Steenson.
“Probably more than anything I’ll miss the changing room banter. What we have on a day-to-day basis is priceless and probably not something you would be able to get anywhere else.”
Like anything in life good things come and go. The man from Dungannon continues to be a role model illustrating everything good about Exeter Chiefs.
“I’m humbled by all the support. My family are incredibly settled in Devon and I wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else. The club is in a great place and will continue to grow in years to come.
I’m proud to have played a small role in the Chiefs great story. However, my legs haven’t given up yet” Steenson chuckles.
“I still want to give everything I’ve got left for maybe another couple of seasons, and who knows, there could be great things round the corner.”
Probably fittingly, after Steenson scores his inevitable points at Sandy Park music plays on the tannoy whilst the crowd cheer. For Steenson, strangely enough, it is ‘Raise Your Glass’, by pop star Pink.
Maybe that’s worth a toast by raising a glass to the man from Dungannon. Congratulations ‘Steeno’ on your testimonial achievement, and for helping Exeter Chiefs to where they are today.
This article was generously written and donated by Exeter Chiefs’ Will Hooley.