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Q&A: Gareth Steenson – I don’t know why there aren’t many Exeter players in the England squad

Exeter Chiefs fly-half Gareth Steenson

As decision time approaches over his Exeter Chiefs future, kicking king Gareth Steenson, 35, tells NEALE HARVEY why there’s life in the old dog yet.

How’s life under lockdown in Exeter?

It’s surprisingly busy between home-schooling the kids and trying to stay fit. My wife’s a GP so she’s in the front line at the moment and I’m trying to keep two wee boys entertained, but we’re doing okay at the minute. I’m doing daily work-outs and all the lads raided the Sandy Park gym, so I’m getting an hour-a-day doing that as well as the running. I’m not doing any kicking but I’ve got to a point in my career where that’s more of a mental challenge than a physical one anyway so, hopefully, I’ll still be able to strike a ball when we get back.

Must be a challenging time for your wife?

She works in a practice in Exmouth and they’re obviously very busy and a bit scared with what’s going on, but they’ve got everything in place that they need to reduce the risks so hopefully she can stay healthy and keep on working. We’re not living apart, we’re still in one house and we haven’t reached a point where we need to stay apart yet.

What’s become of ‘The Stand Off’, your popular pub in Exeter?

We literally just had to close the doors and all the guys are off work. There’s nothing we can do at the moment, which is really frustrating because we’d got to a good point with the place. We were just about to launch a new menu, a lot of people were enjoying our live music and we’d had a good run during the Six Nations, but there are bigger things to be worried about right now. We were in a good spot, though, so when we’re allowed to open the doors again, hopefully people will come back to us and we’ll be able to enjoy good times again.

Rugby-wise, Chiefs were going well before the break?

Yes, it’s very frustrating because this is the time of year when you’ve worked really hard to get to this point and have come through all the bad weather. Pitches have dried up, it’s not as windy and you can play some rugby, but now everything’s on hold. However, while sport is important to us and all clubs are suffering, we’ve just got to try and get this virus bit right first and then, hopefully, we’ll get some more rugby in and be able to finish the season.

Prior to the interruption Chiefs had notched 144 points and 19 tries in their last three Premiership matches, yet still Stuart Barnes reckons you’re boring. Your response?

(Laughs) You just have to take no notice of those things. We know we’ve got a style that we like to put out and it seems to work. If we’re knocking out 50 points and scoring loads of tries, we must be doing something right. It’s not like we’re not scoring long-range ones either. We’re seen as a ‘pick and go’ side but you have to get to the five-metre line first and there’s a reason why we get there. We’re very good when we do get there so maybe Stuart Barnes is just watching the last bit and not what happens before.

You should have been playing Northampton in a Heineken Cup quarter-final at the weekend. At this stage of your career, how much would a European title mean?

It would be huge. Growing up as a kid in Ulster, it seemed to be the only thing people talked about. You kind of missed all the league games but when the European matches came around, everything stopped. That was bred into you and with Ulster winning the competition in 1999 it went off the scale. Ian Whitten’s similar to me in that respect so when big European weekends come around, it’s so big for us. Exeter have never had a home quarter-final before so it’s obviously gutting that everything’s on hold, but if it can be played in future it will still be a big game.

If the season can be resumed in, say, late June or July, how would summer rugby suit you?

It would present a different challenge but I’d love to play in the summer. I think people would rather come out in the sun and watch games rather than having to wrap up and be freezing. It’s something I’d definitely welcome. As a team, we like to play with the sun on our backs so summer rugby would suit us well. We always aim to come through strong in the warmer part of the season anyway so we’ll be ready to go whenever the go-ahead is given.

You’re contracted to Chiefs until this June with a one-year extension option, so what’s the current state of play between you and Rob Baxter?

We’re not really sure because of what’s happening. It’s a very difficult one and we haven’t discussed it yet. There is the option there and it’s a conversation I’ll look to have with Rob relatively soon, but physically I feel pretty good. It feels like a mini-pre-season we’re doing at the minute and you don’t often get to do that during a season, so a lot will depend on how the club see things going forward.

Gareth Steenson and Rob Baxter
Unknown: Gareth Steenson doesn’t know yet if his time at Exeter Chiefs will be extended by Rob Baxter. Michael Steele/Getty Images

You’ve been coaching at Plymouth Albion, how’s that going?

I’ve really enjoyed going down there and being involved in a different environment. I’ve been at Chiefs for nigh on 12 years so just to walk in and see a different group of boys and how they operate is really good. They’ve been fantastic in welcoming me in this season and it’s been really enjoyable to do some coaching there. Like I say, a lot now depends on what happens next year at Chiefs as to whether I carry on or not, but we’ll be having those conversations.

Back to Chiefs, does it bug you that your players don’t seem to be getting as much England recognition as, say, Saracens, Bath and Leicester?

Of course, it surprises me. Let’s be honest, we’re first in the Premiership, have qualified in the Heineken Cup with a home quarter-final and we’ve got some really good young talents who know how to win big, important games of rugby, so it’s frustrating that a lot of our lads seem to be bypassed. Maybe it’s down to fact certain people don’t like the style of rugby we play, and if that’s the case you’re not going to change their attitude towards it. I’d love to see a lot more of our lads get the opportunities they deserve because the group we have in the 22-26 age bracket could be really good for England going forward. It would be a great opportunity for them if they were to get in and there are guys here who could earn a lot of caps for England.

Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell went to the World Cup but who else deserves a chance?

Harry Williams was very unlucky not to have featured in the Six Nations and Ben Moon was going very well before Joe Marler came back. Jonny Hill is a talent who could give England something slightly different because they pick a lot of big lads at lock but Jonny’s really athletic and a brilliant lineout forward. Sam Simmonds is a very dynamic No.8 and any time he’s played for us he’s been outstanding, and there’s his fly-half brother, Joe, as well. It all depends on how Eddie Jones wants his teams to play, though, and he obviously doesn’t think many of our guys fit that style.

How has your fly-half colleague Joe Simmonds developed this season?

The big thing for Joe is that he’s been put into our leadership group this year and he’s definitely stepped up and become that dominant voice around the field. He’s captained the side, is much more assured of himself and his goal-kicking has come on leaps and bounds. He’s only missed three kicks in the Premiership all season, which shows his mental toughness, and he has that quality you need. Like most fly-halves you tend to lead the team anyway, but when you wear the captain’s armband it’s a bit different because you are making more decisions and talking to referees, but he’s definitely come on a lot there. His game is really strong as well with the way he reads things, tackles well, makes good decisions – and he’s very quick. We’re very lucky to have him and he’s still very young, so put another two or three years on him and he’ll be a super talent. He’s going very well at the moment and hopefully England will take notice.

Exeter Chiefs fly-half Joe Simmonds
Super: Joe Simmonds is knocking on England’s door and the thuds are only going to get louder. Henry Browne/Getty Images

With Owen Farrell and George Ford so embedded with England, how does Joe get a chance?

First and foremost, he’s probably more dynamic as an attacking threat. Owen Farrell is up there as one of the best No.10s in the world but physically Joe’s a very strong defender as well and his goal-kicking is very sound. Joe’s got all the attributes he needs to challenge Farrell and Ford and it would be great if England would just give him a chance.

It’ll be ten years this May since you kicked the goals against Bristol that took Exeter into the Premiership. How do you reflect on your career?

It’s been a journey I never envisaged growing up in Northern Ireland. My goal was to get a contract at Ulster and my dream was to play for Ireland, but things change and if you can’t establish yourself in one place you have to try something else. So, I came to England, played for Rotherham and Cornish Pirates, and when I came to the Chiefs in 2008 it was just about trying to establish myself here. Chiefs were an ambitious club and you could see all the infrastructure was there. It was all about getting into the Premiership at first, which we did, and once we got there it was about achieving goals: staying in the Premiership, winning the LV Cup, qualifying for the Heineken Cup, winning the Premiership and now challenging in Europe as well. I just got caught up in the whole momentum of the place and I’ve never not wanted to be part of it. Even now I’m the same and there’s so much more that the club can do. I want to be part of that for as long as I can be.

Does the fact you’ve potentially been denied two Premiership titles by the salary cap shenanigans of Saracens leave a bitter taste?

It’s hard not to feel that way. You want to win as many titles as possible but you also want to cherish the memories of those things as well.

When we won the Premiership in 2017 it was the celebrations that followed that made it so special. On the day you’re up there with the boys on the podium and enjoy what comes with that, but then there’s all the rest of it with the celebrations back at the club and the bus ride around the city.

They are the things you’re hurt about because we feel we’ve missed out on those opportunities because of what those guys at Saracens did. Even if the titles had been stripped off them and handed to us, it would never have got those moments back. That’s the saddest thing really because among my greatest memories are winning the Championship in 2010 and the Premiership in 2017. You live for those moments in sport and missing out on that over the last couple of years is something you can never get back.

Any sympathy for Saracens, who are now being relegated and seeing their squad break up?

No! The rules were in place and they’ve been found guilty. You can’t really have sympathy for them.

Gareth Steenson in action against Saracens
Guilty: Gareth Steenson has no sympathy for Championship-bound Saracens. Getty Images

Do you ever look back and reflect on how your career might have panned out had you stayed in Northern Ireland and fought on for a contract at Ulster?

It’s funny because when I was at Ulster, David Humphreys was still playing at 35 and that’s what probably prevented me getting a contract. Adam Larkin and Paddy Wallace were there as well so they couldn’t find room for me, but I’m feeling a little bit like David Humphreys now and I know why he wanted to play for as long as he possibly could.

What would have happened if I’d stayed? I definitely feel I’d have been part of an Ireland squad at some point, but when I was younger I probably wasn’t ready and I certainly wasn’t the player I am today. I probably needed to go away and learn a few things about myself and sample a different style of rugby.

Being over in England, though, you just don’t get picked for Ireland, which is a real shame because the Premiership is such a hotbed and you’re playing against some of the best players in the world on a week-to-week basis. Ultimately, if we were genuinely picking the best players in each position, maybe I would have made an Ireland squad even though I was here, but I had no control over that. Would I change anything to have done that? Probably not because I’ve loved my time at Exeter.

You played for Ireland in an U21s World Cup final against New Zealand in 2004. Which of your age group teammates also made it big?

I had two years in the U21s and in my first year Tomas O’Leary was my No.9, Tommy Bowe was on the wing and Jamie Heaslip at No.8. They didn’t do too badly, and then in my second year Johnny Sexton was my understudy. I roomed with him for a month so its been brilliant to see him taking his opportunities and doing really well. Oh, and Jimmy Gopperth played for New Zealand!

Finally, you’re on 191 Premiership games and just 22 points behind Nick Evans in the Premiership scoring charts. Be nice to move ahead of his 1,656 points and make 200 games?

I wasn’t aware of the statistics so they would be great milestones. This is my tenth year in the Premiership so from just trying to get an opportunity at the highest level when I first came over to England, to be where I am now is pretty special. At the moment, though, I’d just like to stay healthy and get back out there.

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