The former England back-row powerhouse Thomas Waldrom once remarked that the Exeter Chiefs side he played in were ‘just a bunch of misfits’, writes Gareth Davies.
A record of three Premiership finals – two defeats and one victory – would see some observers disagree with Waldrom’s assessment. However, in some respects many Exeter players that have contributed to their unprecedented rise, from Championship play-off winners to kings of England in seven years, do fit that particular discourse.
Not in terms of talent and abilities on a rugby field, but by finding a place where they can excel.
One player, Gareth Steenson, reflects Waldrom’s comments, although not in a derogatory manner as the Irish veteran has been part of the Chiefs’ rise from the very start, and is set to stick around for a little while longer yet.
This week, Steenson signed a short extension to remain at Sandy Park until the 2019-20 season concludes with Exeter chasing silverware on two fronts.
The stand-out side in both the Premiership and European Champions Cup before the enforced season stoppage because of Covid-19, it would take a brave person to stake against another trophy of some description residing in the Devonians trophy cabinet again.
This would perhaps be the most fitting way to bring the curtain down on Steenson’s time as a Chief – one that has been littered with highs although nobody would have predicted the sheer scale of his impact.
Back to the very beginning and its perhaps here where Waldrom’s words ring truest of all – especially in Steenson’s case. He was hardly a misfit, but after being deemed surplus to requirements by Ulster, the move to England and Rotherham Titans beckoned.
After a year in Yorkshire, he moved to the South West and on to the Cornish Pirates where his undoubted potential started to unlock although once again, Steenson didn’t stay beyond 12 months.
Next stop Exeter Chiefs, although at 22, it was hardly last chance saloon, but the time was right to show everyone why he kept Johnny Sexton warming the Emerald Isle’s bench during the 2005 Junior World Cup.
Steenson also had to battle personal adversity around this time too with the passing of his father, but the move to Exeter meant he was closer to an airport and frequent trips to see his grieving mother.
Now 36, Steenson revealed to this very correspondent previously that his switch over the Tamar was very much because of his family tragedy, but of equal importance he was joining a club that were very much looking up.
In that very same interview, conducted in 2018, he referred to the ‘golden stages’ of Exeter’s history which saw promotion to the Premiership in 2010. A two-legged affair against Bristol, with Steenson starring, saw the Chiefs reach the promised land and now dining at English rugby’s top table, they were determined to stay there.
No side have ever had an impact like Exeter after winning promotion and this is where the recruitment policy of Rob Baxter, the Chiefs’ supremo, comes to the fore as he has a canny knack of picking up waifs and strays before turning them into luminaries and ultimately Premiership winners. Steenson, who kicked the winning points to defeat Wasps in Exeter’s 2017 Premiership triumph, Waldrom, Ian Whitten to name but three, although the list is endless and will continue to grow.
Many of those who have excelled at Sandy Park have gone on to claim international honours, but for some curious reason Steenson was always overlooked by the country of his berth.
‘I’m the best fly-half never to play for Ireland,” he said. It was an honest reflection rather than a bitter one and despite not winning a Test cap, when his boots are eventually hung-up, after what could be a fitting finale, Steenson can look back fondly on what he has achieved with Exeter.
He has created a legacy in his own right and if every Chief – current or future – aspire to be like Steenson, then Exeter will continue to dominate English rugby for years to come. Not bad for a bunch of misfits.