Gareth Steenson excellently describes what Leinster are up against this weekend
It was 11 years ago, but Gareth Steenson can still clearly recall the moment Ulster told him he was not being kept on.
"I remember being told back home, 'Look, this isn't going to happen for you. You either have to go get a job or give something else another try'. I remember sitting down and being told that, and being devastated by that."
From Ireland U21 captain and a top outhalf prospect, Steenson found his way block at Ulster by the reliable excellence of David Humphreys. He should have been retained but Ulster made a big call and it is one they are still regretting. How the province could do with a No.10 of Steenson's class and experience right now.
Having won the Aviva Premiership title with Exeter Chiefs last season [a club he has been with for 11 seasons now], Steenson and his teammates have shown no signs of letting up. Going into the latest round of Champions Cup games, the Chiefs lead the league by eight points. The focus for the next two weeks, though, is Leinster.
Both sides are two from two in Champions Cup Pool 3 so whoever wins this arm wrestle, or emerges with the most points from the back-to-back fixtures, will have control. Leinster have hit form of late but they are running into a side in a similar vein of form and thriving on a team culture that most sides would be rightly envious of.
Earlier this season, we had Steenson on The Hard Yards podcast and he perfectly summed up what makes this Exeter team tick. He said:
"When I joined we had a lot of guys in the squad - about 50 - made up of, relatively, the best players in the Championship at the time. They were picked from all the local teams. We quickly knew after that year that something had to change and that is when Rob Baxter got the job.
"He was forwards coach and was promoted up. He brought in some good coaches, like Ali Hepher and Ricky Pellow. These are the guys that are still there. They've been there as long as I've been here and Rob has basically been here his whole life. He seems to be part of the furniture."
"We always had that attitude that... a lot of the guys that came into the club had always been told they weren't good enough and they had been let go by other teams. We always had a bit of a chip on our shoulders. Even when we got promoted that year, it wasn't supposed to be us. It was supposed to be Bristol that got promoted. In that [promotion] game we were winning by 15 points with 10 minutes to go and they were still supposed to beat us.
"We always had our backs up. Even when we got promoted we were told that we were getting relegated again. 'Exeter Chiefs, they're going to do nothing', 'They're going to go down again'. I think we finished 8th that year.
"We've always had that sort of thing and we have never really went and got a lot of players in at any time. We've always got four or five fellas that come in and sort of fit the mold. I always laugh, and the boys do too, that we always seem to sign these misfits and we find a way to make them fit."
Steenson praises the Chiefs coaching staff for their smart recruitment process and for identifying players that will fit into the club's culture. The big names and big egos are often the hardest to handle, he notes before joking about Exeter not attracting a whole slew of superstars anyway.
The club's academy is producing some talented players of its own, too. Jack Nowell is well established in the England team and was pushing for a Test start on the Lions Tour. Henry Slade is a quality operator and one who should have a healthy international future ahead of him.
The Chiefs are well stacked, so, and should put it right up to Leinster.
The Hard Yards
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