Exeter Chiefs were a run-of-the-mill second-tier English side when Gareth Steenson arrived in 2008 and the Irish fly-half believes Leinster’s visit to Sandy Park will be the ultimate barometer of just how far the club has come since, writes Brendan O'Brien
Cast adrift by Mark McCall at his native Ulster in 2006, Steenson spent time with Rotherham Titans and Cornish Pirates before being hailed by the Chiefs and he has been pivotal to one of professional rugby’s most remarkable rises in the years since.
Promoted to the Premiership in 2010, they claimed the title last season, 12 months after being denied in the final.
Europe remains the final frontier and they face the Irish province having won their opening two pool games for the first time in five attempts.
This will be the third meeting of the sides, the previous pair coming in the 2012-13 season when Leinster eked out two wins by a combined tally of just 12 points in what was Exeter’s first taste of continental fare.
“They’re a very strong outfit,” said Steenson. “They have a host of internationals across the board. They have a high-class pedigree in the competition.
“They’ve started well and getting maximum points is no mean feat.
“We know we have got to be on our mettle. It’s probably a good test of what we’ve done over the last five years. Back then they were just off the back of winning the Champions Cup. It’s a very exciting fixture.”
The Chiefs aren’t the same wide-eyed lot they were back then.
Director of Rugby Rob Baxter didn’t have a squad capable of fighting on two fronts at the time.
Not so now. Exeter are top of the English table again, eight points clear having battered a Bath side that had been sitting in third prior to last weekend.
Bath coach Todd Blackadder admitted afterwards that his side had been “schooled”.
Exeter remain light on big-name internationals but they know their strengths. Baxter, a local man, has established a parish-like feel among his squad of players who tend to live close to each other. Even their partners are a tight-knit group.
Add in the confidence that follows on so naturally from that first Premiership title and it is little wonder that they feel capable of handling any opponent in club rugby when they click. They know better what works and what doesn’t.
“The mistake we made before in Europe when we had gone into the competition was we tried to do things out of our comfort zone, things we were not used to doing,” said Steenson, one of just two survivors from the squad that gained promotion seven years ago.
“We spoke about being ourselves, playing the game we play in the Premiership, and we have been successful in that competition. We spoke about going forward and continuing to do what we do, imposing our games on teams. We feel we can do that.”
Only once did the conversation turn towards what might have been for Steenson had his path at Ulster not been blocked by David Humphreys.
And yet the presence of Jonathan Sexton in Sandy Park on Sunday inevitably evokes a sense of sliding doors.
Steenson and Sexton soldiered together with the Irish U20 side when the Ulsterman kept his slightly younger counterpart on the bench and there has been many a time when the former’s failure to earn a single senior cap has been a hot topic of conversation.
There was even talk four years ago, when he was still just 28 and entering his prime, that he could be picked to tour Argentina with England who were short of high-quality tens due to Lions commitments and injuries.
He qualified on residency grounds.
Yet there is no talk of making a personal point.
“We spent a lot of time underage together. With the U21s spent we spent a month together sharing a room. He’s been a fantastic servant for Leinster and Irish rugby.
"He’s done really well, with the Lions. It’s a fantastic challenge, he makes Leinster and Ireland tick.”
this story first appeared in the Irish Examiner