Ever since Exeter Chiefs came up to the English Premiership back in 2009, they have been on a constant ascent up the league, starting off as a midtable side before ending seven consecutive seasons in the playoffs between 2015 and 2021, including two when they were crowned champions.
However, 2021/2022 saw them drop back down the table and only manage to finish seventh, six points behind fourth-placed Northampton Saints and with 11 losses to their name during the regular campaign – the most in the top eight.
They aren’t used to being that low down the league and it appeared to be a shock to the system for them, and that was perhaps why they opted to make a few changes over the summer in the way that they do things at the club as a way of freshening things up. The main alteration was that Director of Rugby Rob Baxter would take a step back from matchday duties, taking on what has been described as a “more hands-off” role at the club instead. In his place, head coach Ali Hepher, who has worked alongside Baxter since the club’s Championship days, has been handed full control of on-pitch matters with the club hoping that “having a different eye” guiding things will help to fix what they felt as a collective had slipped last season.
What has gone wrong?
According to the club, nothing. The way that they have worded this swap in leadership is that they needed a reset after so many years of success, and their extended summer break gave them a chance to assess their overall performances and give the team some fresh ideas at the top. They add that any team who enjoys as much success as they have will inevitably have one year when things don’t go their way, and it is also worth noting that they had a lot of injuries last season, so this is by no means a finger pointed in Baxter’s direction.
So what did go wrong? Well, the simple fact is that, last season, they just didn’t look like themselves at times. There are plenty of things that we have come to associate with Exeter, such as precision with the ball and a robust defence, that simply weren’t there. Instead, they were replaced by poor accuracy in possession, leading to opportunities for territorial gains being squandered, as well as individual players committing too early to opponents and leaving space open, making them too easy to beat.
In order to fix these problems and restore the club to their former glory, Hepher has said that he wants to drill down into every single detail of Exeter’s play, adding that being constantly fussy about what they are doing each week will help them to become a much better team with higher standards.
With that in mind, what has the new matchday boss changed tactically so far?
In their two games so far, the Chiefs have faced two teams who play with different styles of rugby, as defending champions Leicester Tigers always bring physicality to their games whilst Worcester Warriors are naturally more open and enable their opponents to move the ball around with added freedom. That means that we have seen two different performances from the Devon side so far, giving us a good idea of what to expect from them as the season goes on.
However, one thing that Hepher clearly wants them to focus on regardless of who they are facing is shorter passing, which means that they aren’t taking as many risks and have a better chance of moving the ball around with greater accuracy. It also enables them to identify space around the pitch and build play, breaking through gaps in opposing lines when they appear, which is where new signing Solomone Kata has particularly shone. This is something that worked against both Leicester and Worcester, with the latter in particular being continually sucked inside and giving the Chiefs too much space on the wings to exploit.
The other noticeable aspect of their play is a greater desire to keep pushing until the final whistle, with the late try from Namibian tighthead Patrick Schickerling against Leicester showing how Hepher has worked on increasing their endeavour and belief in what they are doing, and that will also be crucial if they are to make themselves a tougher team to play against and one that simply cannot be counted out of the playoff picture.
On the flip side, however, two wins has not disguised the defensive issues that remain ingrained in the team, and this is where they need to spend the majority of their time on the training ground if they are serious about improving.
Quite simply, they are still too easy to beat in open play, with Worcester catching them out on a number of occasions when running up the field, and they are also still coming inside the pitch and allowing their opponents to break around them, with one of the Warriors’ tries coming from in-form winger Alex Hearle doing just that.
Even in the more physical matches, they have at times not been strong enough, with their lineout defence, which has historically been a big plus for the Chiefs, not there against Leicester. They simply had no answer at times to the Tigers’ power and driving ability, and, whilst they have lost several huge names in their pack, including Sam Skinner, Jonny Hill, Don Armand and Will Witty, this is something that needs addressing if they want to improve their defensive play and climb back into the playoff picture.
Signs of improvement?
There has been some very good play from Exeter so far, with them now playing in a way that ensures that they don’t give the ball away as much as they did last season, and Hepher will want to see his team continue to play with that character and demonstrate the same resolve to fight until the end as the season goes on.
However, the fact that both Leicester and Worcester found ways to break them down reminds us that there is still a lot for them to do and a long way to go on their road to recovery, with the visit of 2020/2021 champions Harlequins on Sunday providing yet another tough test.
Nevertheless, the early signs are that Chiefs fans can look forward to 2022/2023 as a year when their side could regain their status as one of the Premiership’s leading sides, giving them something to smile about once more.