Exeter Chiefs’ veteran fly-half Gareth Steenson says it is time his side established themselves as a dominant force in Europe, writes Andrew Clayton.
The Irishman, 36, was one of the core players who epitomised Exeter’s journey from Championship also-ran to a Premiership colossus.
This week, however, like many of the others spent under lockdown, Steenson has been sticking to a routine that sees his rugby training fitted around homeschooling his two boys.
“It’s been busy – if I’m honest, I’m probably more busy now than I’ve ever been!,” he exclusively told The Independent. “Between getting up at 6.00 in the morning to lift weights and finishing my fitness programme for 8.30, when the kids can get ready for their home schooling. It’s grand though, we’re all in the same boat and it definitely lets the day go past you quicker, rather than being sat watching telly.”
Steenson’s wife, Karen, is a general practitioner with the National Health Service in Exmouth, and the rugby star was pleased to report that her work situation had began to calm down.
“She works from 8.00 in the morning until 8.00 at night, she’s out there doing her thing and doing quite well at the minute.
“Obviously, when it first started she was very nervous about what was going on, as it was a bit of an unknown, but now they’ve got it well sorted and how they’re dealing with it. She’s keeping safe and well.”
Away from home life, Steenson is better known as the number ten who kicked Chiefs up and through the ranks. After a year with Championship neighbours Cornish Pirates, the fly-half signed for Exeter in 2008 and became a crucial member of a winning squad.
In 2010, he scored 33 of the 38 points Chiefs accumulated from their two-legged win over Bristol Bears, taking the Championship title and earning promotion to the Premiership.
Seven years later, it was Steenson again nailing two conversions and three penalties in the Premiership play-off final over Wasps, to give Exeter their first-ever top flight title. Missing from his trophy cabinet, however, is one of Europe’s showpiece competitions, a space which nags at the Irishman.
“We’re not a club that sits still, we’re always asking, ‘what’s the next thing?’. Obviously, that’s Europe and we’ve got to do better in Europe.
“We’ve established ourselves as a top English team and we want to establish ourselves as a top European side.”
A lot has changed at Sandy Park since the fly-half first arrived, he is the first to admit, but the determination to succeed is ever-present.
He continued: “The culture and the work ethic is very much a part and parcel of what we’re about. We were all one team.
“Nearly everyone in the promotion-winning squad was told somewhere else they weren’t good enough. There was always a chip on our shoulder, even when we got into the Premiership we were told exactly the same thing, that we’d be relegated straight away.
“There was always that kind of never-say-die attitude with the boys and that’s been instilled.
“We’re getting young lads coming through, pushing the club on all the time. We’re getting that international stardust come in and sprinkled over the top, so it’s a really good mixture amongst the guys.
“It all snowballed and I’ve been very fortunate to be there and see the whole progression of it. There’s bigger and better days ahead for the club.”
The fly-half has also been working with National One side Plymouth Albion this season, an opportunity he has relished.
He explained: “It was really enjoyable because it was different. I’m not institutionalised, but being with the Chiefs for as long as I have, it was nice to go into a changing room and see something different.
“They’re a very committed bunch of lads who were really good fun to work with and willing to get on board and work as hard as they can. It’s disappointing the way it finished for them because they were playing a good brand of rugby and with James Scaysbrook coming in at the time, he got a real reaction out of them.
“They all bought into the style of rugby and I can’t speak highly enough after working with them. I know I got a lot out of it and I hope they did as well.”
As it stands, Steenson’s contract expires on paper this year with an optional, one-year extension added in, although he and director of rugby Rob Baxter are yet to discuss his future.
Instead, the 36-year-old insists that the logistics behind rugby’s return must be considered before his own contract – although he wouldn’t mind to bow out with another title under his belt.
“I have the option but there’s a lot of other things going on, so first and foremost it’s about when the Premiership will be back,” he added. “It’s a conversation we’ll have, hopefully, not in the too distant future, but it’s about getting everything up and running again first.
“We’re all desperate to play, we got ourselves in an unbelievable position with Europe and sitting top of the Premiership. I’m not saying we want to just plough on, but if you ask any of our lads, everyone is desperate to finish the season.
“You want to win as many things as you possibly can as a player. If this season is able to be finished, I want to finish it on a high, if it’s not then hopefully there’s other things to come as well.”