Ian Whitten: Exeter's unsung hero celebrates 150 Premiership appearances

By Brent PilnickBBC Sport
Ian Whitten
Ian Whitten joined Exeter from Ulster in 2012

Ian Whitten led out his side in front of more than 11,000 cheering fans ahead of Exeter's massive Premiership win over title rivals Northampton on Sunday.

But while the Sandy Park faithful were busy celebrating his 150th league appearance for the Chiefs, the man himself appeared rather uncomfortable as the focus of their acclaim.

Whitten might not be a household name, but the quiet Ulsterman is one of the most important cogs in Exeter's winning machine.

"He's underrated, but he's hugely rated within these four walls," head coach Ali Hepher told BBC Sport after another vital performance by Whitten as Exeter opened up an eight-point lead at the top of the Premiership and beat the side that had been closest to them before the weekend by 50 clear points.

Whitten set up Tom Hendrickson for the bonus-point try, but the 32-year-old centre's work breaking up play and chasing down kicks was one of the reasons Northampton found it difficult to get a foothold in the game.

"He brings a work ethic every single day, and an intensity every single day," said Hepher, who as Exeter's attack coach knows Whitten better than most.

"He's one of the last guys to leave his recovery, he understands what being a pro is and he's great example for the younger players.

"He's been a massive part of the success of this club over the past few years and he doesn't look like stopping."

Ian Whitten training
Whitten is described as one of the hardest-working players at Exeter

Whitten moved to Exeter from Ulster in the summer of 2012, having made two appearances for Ireland against the USA and Canada on a tour to North America in 2009.

Since then he has played in three of Exeter's four Premiership finals - he played the full 100 minutes when the Chiefs won their only title against Wasps in extra time in 2017.

"I've come a long way in my career, probably a lot further than I ever thought I would, so it's just a nice feeling to still be out there after 150 games," said Whitten.

"I'd set myself a target to play a couple, of games a month so I wouldn't miss home so bad, that was my target, I just wanted to be involved in the team.

"The club has got better over the time I've been here, so it's nice that the club and the team has done well."

The reluctant winger

Ian Whitten
Ian Whitten has made 211 appearances in all competitions for Exeter

While Whitten sees himself very much as a centre, a good chunk of his 150 Premiership appearances have come on the wing.

"I kind of know he hates it on the wing, but I know he hates it even more not being on the field," said director of rugby Rob Baxter.

"I don't think I'd be talking about playing 150 league games without it," added Whitten, of his versatility.

"Wing is not where I feel comfortable, but just to be on the pitch is the most important thing as a rugby player, for me any way.

"Hopefully I've managed to do a decent enough job on the wing when I've had to fill in there as well.

"The first game I played for Ulster on the wing I'd never done it in my life, so to have got away with it for so long I'm delighted about it."

Lack of international recognition

Ian Whitten and Gareth Steenson
Ulstermen Ian Whitten and Gareth Steenson have been key players in Exeter's rise in the Premiership

While Whitten seems uncomfortable talking about himself, the man who brought him to the club almost eight years ago is more than keen to sing his praises.

"He's given himself the opportunity to play a lot of rugby, and he's thoroughly earned every single minute he's played on the pitch by how hard he's trained and how hard he's worked," said Baxter.

"I'm still a little bit surprised, maybe not now as he's got a little bit older, but over the time he's been here, that he's not had a bit more Irish recognition.

"That's been good for us as a side because he's been available nearly every week, but he's been one of those guys who's good on and off the field, a great sense of humour, a little bit different - as a lot of our guys are - but massively professional as well."

If you are not playing in Ireland you cannot play for the national team, so Whitten's move to England always meant any outside hopes he had of a call-up would be unlikely to become relaity, despite playing at the top end of one of Europe's elite leagues.

"If you look at an Ireland team, centre has never been a weak position," Whitten observed.

"Certainly at one point they were short of 10's and I always thought for Gareth (Steenson, Whitten's Exeter teammate and fellow Irishman) that the opportunity might have been there for him, but I never really thought that for myself.

"I've just been enjoying my rugby over here, in my mind regardless of international caps, I'm proud of what I've done in my career and hopefully I can still have a year or two left in it as well."

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