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The Strength of the Wolf
A 360 Exclusive Interview with Gareth Steenson

Gareth Steenson, or Steeno as he is more commonly known, is a true legend in the world of rugby. The definition of excellence, over a remarkable 16-year career with the Exeter Chiefs, he has become synonymous with resilience, leadership, and success. From leading the team to multiple championships to seamlessly moving into a coaching role, Gareth’s journey is one of perseverance and passion. 

 

Steeno and I go back a long way, to before RWC2015. He’s jumped in to help me on more than one occasion over the years and pulled me from some tricky situations.

 

It’s now my absolute pleasure to be supporting him as he moves into his next phase.  Shortly after announcing he would be leaving the Chiefs, to head back to Northern Ireland, I sat down with him to talk insights, stories, and the wisdom he’s gathered during an extraordinary journey. 

Stay Inspired. Stay Curious 

Tracey

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Gareth, your story begins back home in Northern Ireland. Can you share how your upbringing there shaped your approach to rugby and influenced your perspective on life?

 

I grew up in Armagh. It’s technically a city, but it’s not very big. My upbringing there had a huge impact on me. My parents were really sporty, so we spent a lot of time outside. I grew up on a farm, so we were always on the go. I have a brother who is three years older, and there was always a bit of sibling rivalry, especially when we were younger.

My Dad was really into football and was instrumental in building Armagh City Football Club. My mum was into badminton and other sports. So, sports were a big part of our lives. We were always encouraged to play, mainly team sports, but I also played individual sports like badminton and tennis. This mix really helped when I started playing football and rugby.

We didn’t have much in terms of material things, but we were always happy and spent a lot of time together as a family. Growing up in the countryside, we made our own entertainment. Rugby wasn’t initially big in my house because of my dad’s football passion. Saturdays were spent watching his team. But when I got into primary school, rugby became more common, just playing with friends.

I remember my first day at Armagh City Rugby Club. The coach said to score between the two cones. I ran past the dead ball area, thinking I’d done the right thing, clueless about the game. But I enjoyed it. 

At one point, I even wanted to be a professional snooker player—I was decent at it. But the team element of sports like rugby and football really appealed to me.

My parents were fantastic. They took me wherever I needed to go for sports. They loved it too. My dad was a playful critic, which was good for keeping me grounded and not getting too ahead of myself. Both my parents kept me rooted in reality, and that was crucial for my development.


 

How significant was your Dad’s influence on you, and in what ways did it shape you?

 

My dad was incredibly encouraging. He was a very good sportsman himself—a great footballer who really loved the game and different types of sports. He understood the importance of being part of a team. He was one of those social guys who everyone looked up to, and he had a fun character. That's something I’ve tried to emulate throughout my career.

He knew how to bring teams together, and that’s something I’ve always focused on. If you’re passionate and enjoy what you do, you’re already 80% of the way there. I’ve always tried to instil that in the teams I’ve played with.

I was a shy kid. When I got picked to play for Mid Ulster, coming from a little town and going up against kids from Belfast, it was a big deal. Many of them didn’t even know where Armagh was. Back then, without the technology we have today, it was a different world.

My dad was great at encouraging me to be open. He saw potential in me as a sportsman and knew when to push me and be critical. But he also knew how to give me enough confidence to go out there and be successful. His influence was crucial in shaping who I became, both on and off the field.

 

You’ve been a pivotal part of the Exeter Chiefs for 16 years. Building on the great grounding your father gave you, what key insight has guided your approach to getting the best out of your teams? 

 

I think the key thing was that he knew me inside out. He understood my personality and saw me grow up, so he knew exactly how to press the right buttons at the right time. He knew when to put his arm around me and when to be critical because he knew my character.

This has been the foundation for my rugby career. You need to really know your teammates  to help them become the best they can be.  I knew there were some guys I could be tough on for example and others I had to encourage more gently.

For any leader, whether in sports or business, it's crucial to have a personal connection with your team members. Understanding them on an individual level helps you get the best out of them. When you know your people well, you can push them in the right direction, and in turn, they will push the team forward. It’s about finding that balance and understanding how to bring out the best in each person to drive success collectively.

Let’s talk about rejection. You faced a significant setback with Ulster before moving on to find success with the Chiefs. How do you personally handle rejection, and what techniques have you developed to move past it? 

 

For me, it's about using it. You've got to use rejection as fuel. Everyone has goals, and if you look at anyone successful, none of them had an easy ride. They've all been told at some point that they weren't good enough. The key is how you use that feedback to drive yourself forward.

I've carried that chip from Ulster on my shoulder throughout my rugby career. When I came to Exeter Chiefs, it was a perfect fit because they were also told they wouldn't succeed. It matched my drive and character perfectly.

At Ulster, I remember being told I was on the right path—Ireland U21 team, Golden Boot winner, expected to captain the Ireland team at the World Cup. I thought everything was falling into place. Then came the blow: no contract. I was faced with either getting a completely different job or chasing my dream by taking a less conventional route.

The truth is, I had got comfortable, thinking success was guaranteed. That rejection hit me hard. But it fueled my desire to prove people wrong. When I joined the Chiefs, a team not expected to get promoted or stay in the Premiership, it just clicked. The club fit my character, and I was able to flourish. Being myself, my true character came out, and that's when I became powerful.

Rejection can be a turning point. Use it to fuel your drive, keep pushing, and eventually, you'll find a place where you can truly be yourself and succeed.

 

Your journey with the Exeter Chiefs is legendary and has gone down in history. Reflecting on that incredible path, was there a specific turning point when you realised, as a team, "We can genuinely do this"? When did you first feel that the team's drive and determination, fueled by that chip on your shoulder, could lead to real success? 

 

I suppose we were about two or three years in when things started to change. Our initial goal was just to enjoy ourselves and focus on getting better each week. When we first got into the Premiership, it was all about staying there without putting too much pressure on ourselves. Ironically, we ended up coming eighth that first season, and then we got a bit comfortable. We had reached our first stage goal of being a Premiership team.

Then, we had a bit of a rough season by our standards, but things started to shift when we brought in players like Dean Mumm. Suddenly, international players wanted to come to the club. When I joined, my goal was to eventually get back home, but I started to see something building here. The fan base was growing, the team was playing well, and talented academy players like Jack Nowell and Henry Slade were coming through. They were passionate about playing for Exeter Chiefs, and that passion was contagious.

It began to feel like home. The turning point for me was when we won the LV Cup in 2014. That first trophy at a higher level was a catalyst. We’d achieved something, and the next step was to aim for the top four, which would allow us to compete for the Premiership title. It wasn't about rushing to get there; it was about steady progress.

We won that first trophy in 2014, and by 2016 we had made it into the top four. We lost our first final, but that loss was crucial. It was our first taste of the big stage, and we learned from it. The next progression was clear: we had to win it.

It's all about small stepping stones. You can't rush to the top without building solid foundations. Look at Leicester City—they rose quickly and then fell just as fast. London Welsh had a similar story. We focused on building strong foundations and a solid team, adding the right pieces over about five years. That gradual build was key to our long-term success.

That approach has clear parallels to the business world, especially for startups. It's not just about how quickly you reach the top, but how solid your foundations are. Can you elaborate on the importance of building strong foundations and how that principle applies to both sports teams and businesses?

 

100%. It's just like with our bar, The Stand Off, in Exeter. We were all gung-ho at the start. We had an idea, and four months later, the place was open. The initial feedback was fantastic—everyone loved it. But then, like anything, the novelty wears off, and you realise you need to build a loyal customer base. You need to create a product and an environment that people want to come back to.

For the first couple of years, we struggled a bit. We assumed people would just keep coming, so we kind of sat back. It took us about two or three years to really get the right individuals in place to drive it forward. I'm not saying the people we had before weren't good, but we needed the right mix to push things in the right direction. Then COVID hit, and it was even more crucial to have the right team in place.

Now, we're in our sixth year, and the bar is going from strength to strength. It kind of looks after itself because we've got the right people running it. They can take it and do what they need to do with it. Comparing where we were three or four years ago, especially coming out of COVID, to where we are now—it's chalk and cheese. It's great to see the progress and direction we're heading in.

Building strong foundations and creating a sense of community seem essential to the success of The Stand Off. You've had referees and notable figures like Craig Doyle and our own Tom Foley enjoying the place. How do you ensure that The Stand Off offers experiences that people love and that fosters that sense of belonging?

 

Yes - we've had the referees in there for sure. We always try to put on events and activities that people would enjoy. I think about what I would like to see or do, and that's our starting point. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel; we're just aiming to provide what people enjoy. 

The idea was always for The Stand Off to feel like an extension of my garage. After games, players would come around to my place to relax and have a bit of fun. That's the vibe we wanted to create—a place where people can unwind and enjoy themselves. And it's getting there. We've got live music, good food, and the atmosphere is fantastic. The team's doing unbelievably well, and the support from the community has been amazing. It's all about building that sense of belonging and making sure everyone feels welcome.

 

Let’s talk about how embracing change can lead to success. You've seen and managed a lot of changes at the club. What do you consider your biggest success at the Chiefs through all these changes, and what are you most proud of in terms of the impact you've had?

 

That’s a tough one. For me, it was always about enjoyment and wanting to be the best I could be. I knew that to get the best out of myself, I had to try to get the best out of the people around me because it's a team sport. So, for me, it was all about enjoyment.

Being part of the club and seeing its growth has been incredible. There was an Exeter Chiefs before I arrived, and they were already building towards something. I came in a couple of seasons before it really took off, and I became part of that building process.

I'm very proud of seeing the progression. Just the other day, I had an interview with the players, and I was pleased to see that several of the under-eighteens I coached three years ago are now starting in the first team. It's fantastic to see them having the opportunity to write their own chapter at Exeter Chiefs.

I’ve had my time at the club, and while everything comes to an end, I want people to go into that rugby club and enjoy what it can bring—the friendships, the opportunity to live their dreams. I got to live my dream, which was incredible, but I have other things I want to pursue now.

When I step away, I see it as starting the building blocks again. It’s like when I moved into coaching. After 12 years as a professional player, I had a wealth of experience, but as soon as I walked through the door as a coach, I was a novice again. You have to be comfortable with that.

Four years down the line, I feel proud of my contribution to the young players coming through. I’m excited for them and hopeful that the club will continue to move forward and get even better.

 

When I spoke with Josh Hodge recently, we discussed how he's just starting out in his career and how important it is to recognise that he stands on the shoulders of giants who paved the way for him. He really understood and appreciated that responsibility. How does it make you feel knowing that Josh and his peers are standing on your shoulders, given all you've accomplished with the Chiefs?

 

Yeah, that's quite a funny way of putting it. But yeah, it makes me very proud. I never thought I was doing anything out of the ordinary. For me, I got to go to work every day, play a game, and my goal was to be better every single day. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it was my reality. I probably didn't achieve all my goals until the last day of my career when we won the double. I never stopped pushing until I reached that point, because I had to achieve something significant.

There were opportunities to chase an Ireland cap, but that wasn't my journey. I made my choice to stay with Exeter, and it paid off. It's a proud moment to hear that players like Josh are standing on our shoulders. I understand the position I'm in and what the club has done for me and for the city.

Josh gets it—he's very respectful of the guys who've come before him, and he's eager to learn. He's going to be great and, hopefully, a future Exeter Chiefs star for years to come. When his time comes to pass the jersey, I hope he can take the club to another level. It's about building on what we've done and pushing it further.

 

You have so much wisdom to pass on to the next generation coming through. What are the three key messages you want to leave with them to ensure that the legacy continues and they keep progressing as they should?

 

I just told the boys yesterday, I’ve lived my entire career by three principles: attitude, commitment, and enjoyment. We called it ACE. It’s a simple approach, but it’s powerful. First, you need the right attitude. Believe you can get better and achieve what you set out to do. For example, I was told for years I wasn’t a good defender. But I had the attitude that I could improve, so I committed to it. I trained harder, did extra sessions, lifted more weights, and gradually got better.

Second, you need commitment. You have to commit to your goals and put in the hard work, whether it’s extra training or early morning sessions. Commitment is what turns that attitude into reality.

Finally, and most importantly, you need to enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you won’t have the right attitude or commitment. Enjoyment ties everything together. If you enjoy coming in, working hard, and tackling those challenges, you won’t want to leave. 

The biggest lesson I can give to any kid, and I told this to the guys, is to make sure you enjoy what you do. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it. Those three principles—attitude, commitment, and enjoyment—apply to any field, whether it's sports or business. Have the attitude to be the best, commit to it, and enjoy the process. If you don’t enjoy it, you sure as heck won’t stick with it.

You're entering an exciting new phase in your career, which includes delivering talks and sharing your experiences. What can audiences expect from your presentations, and what core messages do you aim to deliver? What do you want your audience to take away from your speaking engagements?

 

I'd like audiences to walk away with a sense of positivity about building good teams and strong relationships. It's about understanding that you might need a backbone and a bit of resilience. My career has been built on proving people wrong, but doing it with a smile on my face. Attitude, commitment, and enjoyment are key themes I'll always emphasise.

Having a goal for yourself is important, but you need to know it's not going to be a steady rise. There will be peaks and troughs along the way. As long as you keep moving towards your trajectory, you can achieve your goals. There will be moments where you wonder if you're on the right path, but you need to have the toolkit to persist.

It's about being comfortable with being uncomfortable and having confidence in where you want to go. Understand that success won't happen overnight, and you need to be comfortable with that. Keep pushing forward and enjoy the journey.

And, on that note Steeno, we wish you every success in the next phase of your journey. Something tells us it’ll be a great one. Enjoy! 

 

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Next Steps and How to Book Gareth Steenson

Gareth Steenson is ready to share his wealth of experience, insights, and passion with your organisation & teams. Whether you’re looking to inspire your team, develop leadership skills, or build a resilient and motivated workforce, his talks are designed to deliver impactful and lasting messages.

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