AS ULSTER LOOK to keep their Champions Cup quarter-final hopes alive this evening in Exeter [KO 5.30pm, BT Sport 2], two of their own will be doing their very best to ensure Les Kiss’ men leave Sandy Park empty-handed.
Gareth Steenson starts at out-half and captains the Premiership side, while Ian Whitten lines out in Exeter’s 12 shirt.
Whitten runs a switch line off Steenson against Wasps last year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Two proud men of Ulster, both exiles who have forged fine careers with one of the most impressive clubs in England.
Steenson’s story is one we have visited before, but Whitten has never looked back since Rob Baxter convinced him to make the move to Exeter in the summer of 2012.
While the 29-year-old hasn’t been first-choice for every game in the current campaign, he was superb during last season’s charge to the Premiership final, starting 21 league games including the final defeat to Saracens.
127 appearances in all competitions in the past five seasons, in the centre and on the wing, show how important a part of the fabric Whitten has become at Exeter, as well as underlining his durability.
While Steenson joined Exeter when they were still in the Championship, Whitten came on board part of the way through their remarkable rise from the second tier into being genuine contenders in the Premiership.
“It’s been great to be part of it,” says the Lisburn man. “I sort of joined halfway along. They’d come up through the Championship and I still think the best achievement here was the year after they got out of the Championship, to stay in the Premiership. That’s very hard to do.
“After that, we’ve been able to go from strength to strength. They’re always looking to improve here, how they can add to things coach-wise, new players coming into the club ever year.”
A product of Wallace High School, Whitten played for Ireland at U18 and U19 levels before breaking into the Ulster set-up, making his senior debut at inside centre in a Heineken Cup defeat to Stade Français in 2009.
Whitten on his Ulster debut in 2009. Source: PRESSEYE/INPHO
After three promising seasons of playing in midfield, Brian McLaughlin shifted him to the wing in 2011/12 and Whitten began to see a future outside his home province.
“I felt I needed a new challenge,” he says. “I wasn’t really in the frontline team for Ulster. Although I played a lot, I wasn’t really ever first pick. I thought at 24 or 25 that it was the time if I was ever going to try it – to see something different, see how I could do in a different environment – that was the time to do it.
“I met Rob, looked around the club and I was very impressed. They were keen to have me, so it was an easy decision in the end.”
Whitten had won his first two Ireland caps in the summer of 2009, following his breakthrough at Ulster, starting at 12 against Canada and the USA on the North America tour, and scoring tries in both wins.
He wasn’t able to add to that tally in the subsequent years – although he did play for an Ireland Select XV before the 2011 World Cup – and has found himself on the outside of Ireland squad in recent years too, despite being a regular starter in the Premiership and Champions Cup.
“No, no,” says Whitten when asked if there was ever contact from Ireland. “To be honest, I was always sort of under the impression that they would only pick boys playing away if they were clearly the number one player, like Johnny Sexton when he was in France.
“To be honest, there’s lots of good centres back home playing well. Overall, looking at it from away, there’s limited opportunities there for me. I’m just glad I got over here, playing well and getting a few starts in the five years I’ve been here.”
While Whitten is unwilling to push his own claims for having furthered his international career in the last five years, he has been surprised to see Steenson ignored despite long spells of excellent form for Exeter.
Whitten won two Ireland caps in June 2009. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
“I didn’t really know Steeno before I came over here,” says Whitten of the 32-year-old out-half. “He was a couple of years older than me, so he had left by the time I was coming through at Ulster.
“He’s a legend for the club here and with the form he’s shown for the club in the last few years, he’s the main leader in our team. He’s dragged people along with him and he’s what the club is all about; somebody that didn’t have the success early on in his career but kept working and working and is now reaping the rewards toward the end.
“I would say he’s been very unlucky to be overlooked for Ireland. Obviously, being over in England is part of it. In the past four or five years he’s been unlucky not to get an opportunity, I would have thought. But they like to pick boys playing at home.”
Clearly playing in Ireland is the only way for players like Whitten and Steenson to be considered for national squads, but the Exeter out-half told us last year that he had never even been asked to return home and play for one of the provinces.
Whitten’s name has circled the rumour mill at various times in the past five years and even recently in relation to a return to Ireland, although he says it’s not something he has considered.
His current contract ties him to Exeter until the end of the 2017/18 season and he is happy where he is.
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“No, they were keen to keep me here and I didn’t really consider back home,” says Whitten when the topic of contact from the provinces comes up. “To be honest, if they were happy here, I was happy here. I didn’t really look around at all.”
Considering how content Whitten has been with his life in Exeter and rugby with the Chiefs, it wouldn’t really make sense to look for a way out at this stage of his career.
Whitten tackles Charles Piutau in the defeat at Ravenhill. Source: Presseye/INPHO
He has started nine league games out of 13 this season, with three further starts in the Champions Cup, but points out how competitive the backline spots are in Exeter, with the likes of Ollie Devoto, Michele Campagnaro, Sam Hill and Henry Slade among the midfield options for head coach Baxter when fully fit.
The birth of his child, James, recently means Whitten is in a haze of happiness, regardless of what’s going on in rugby.
“It hasn’t been too bad, to be fair,” says Whitten with a laugh. “He’s been fairly well-behaved, so that helps! It’s a great thing to happen in your life and you’re sort of bouncing around. It’s nothing too bad, just a wee bit less sleep – or interrupted anyway!”
Exeter’s Champions Cup quarter-final hopes are finished after three defeats in their opening four pool games – including a dramatic loss away to Ulster – but Whitten insists there is home pride to play for at Sandy Park today.
In the Premiership, they lie third and are keen to take the next step after last season’s defeat in the final.
For today, however, Whitten will take on some old friends in the Ulster team.
“It’s a bit weird, playing against boys you used to play with and look up to some of them as well. So it’s a bit weird playing against some of them, but at the same time, we’ve got to get on with it. Both teams will go for it.”
Whitten has made more than 100 appearances for Exeter. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
And beyond these final two Champions Cup fixtures this month, Whitten is happy with life at a club that continues to grow as a force.
“I just want to play, and play well. I feel the club is going places, so I want to get on the team if I can and be part of it. Exeter will certainly be in the mix in the next few years.”
15. Phil Dollman
14. Jack Nowell
13. Michele Campagnaro
12. Ian Whitten
11. Olly Woodburn
10. Gareth Steenson (captain)
9. Dave Lewis
1. Ben Moon
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie
3. Greg Holmes
4. Mitch Lees
5. Jonny Hill
6. Tom Johnson
7. Don Armand
8. Thomas Waldrom
16. Jack Yeandle
17. Moray Low
18. Harry Williams
19. Dave Dennis
20. Kai Horstmann
21. Stuart Townsend
22. Joe Simmonds
23. Ollie Devoto
15. Louis Ludik
14. Charles Piutau
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Andrew Trimble (captain)
10. Paddy Jackson
9. Dave Shanahan
1. Callum Black
2. Rory Best
3. Ross Kane
4. Kieran Treadwell
5. Pete Browne
6. Iain Henderson
7. Chris Henry
8. Sean Reidy
16. John Andrew
17. Andrew Warwick
18. Jonny Simpson
19. France van der Merwe
20. Clive Ross
21. Paul Marshall
22. Brett Herron
23. Jacob Stockdale
Referee: Romain Poite [FFR].
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