The second of the semi-finals in the 2019/2020 English Premiership play-offs saw title favourites Exeter Chiefs host Bath at Sandy Park. This was a game that the majority, if not all fans, expected to go to Exeter, but Bath have not been a pushover this season, and have played some really impressive rugby. In this tactical analysis, we will analyse the reasons why Exeter did win, and why the scoreline was relatively comfortable for them in the end. We will look at Exeter’s tactics in attack and in defence, as well as what Bath did right and wrong during the game.
Exeter Chiefs Bath
15. S. Hogg 15. A. Watson
14. O. Woodburn 14. R. McConnochie
13. H. Slade 13. J. Joseph
12. O. Devoto 12. C. Redpath
11. T. O’Flaherty 11. J. Cokanasiga
10. J. Simmonds (c) 10. R. Priestland
9. J. Maunder 9. B. Spencer
- A. Hepburn 1. B. Obano
- L. Cowan-Dickie 2. T. Dunn
- H. Williams 3. W. Stuart
- J. Gray 4. J. McNally
- J. Hill 5. C. Ewels (c)
- D. Ewers 6. T. Ellis
- J. Vermeulen 7. S. Underhill
- S. Simmonds 8. T. Faletau
Exeter Chiefs’ attack
We will first begin by looking at Exeter Chiefs’ attack. It was clear that the Chiefs knew how Bath defended, often leaving spaces between each other, as we can see that they looked to run through these gaps when they were available.
Here, fly-half Joe Simmonds has the ball, and it is clear that Bath expected him to pass it across towards his teammate, drifting across to close off that option. However, in doing so, they have left the gap open for Simmonds to run through, as the yellow arrow shows. This attacking move was further helped by Exeter centre Ollie Devoto running across Simmonds, as the red arrow shows. This meant that Simmonds had time to get through the gap, but was brought down shortly afterwards by Bath’s former Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer. He had managed to offload the ball to Devoto before hitting the ground, but England flanker Sam Underhill ended the threat of a breakaway there. Whilst this ultimately came to nothing, it was a warning sign to Bath that Exeter would look to use their pace to exploit these gaps whenever they appeared.
However, the gaps weren’t shut off, and we can see how, late on in the second half, another one appeared, and this time Bath were made to pay for it, because Exeter scored a try from this run through. Joe Simmonds is again in possession, in the black circle, having received the ball from substitute scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. Simmonds sees that the space is available, and makes his move through, advancing a long way before offloading to Devoto again, and the centre gets the try for Exeter Chiefs.
Therefore, what we can see is that one of Exeter’s main attacking tactics was to use the gaps that Bath constantly have in their defensive ranks, gaining metres and, in some cases, scoring tries from them.
Another area where Exeter were strong in their attack is in driving forward. In the image below, we can see part of the build-up to the try scored by England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie under the posts.
Lock Jonny Hill has the ball, in the black circle, but Cowan-Dickie is next to him. Exeter were good in the drive for one particular reason; they moved the ball around quickly, rather than letting it get stuck underneath bodies. This meant that Bath didn’t have time to continually organise themselves after each driving attempt, meaning that Exeter didn’t face as many defenders as they could have done in each push forward.
There wasn’t anything wrong with what Bath did, but the Chiefs were just too quick for them, and also had more force going forwards. Bath were constantly driven back, and, in this series of phases, it was always likely that the home side would get under the posts at some stage.
The only thing about their attack that was perhaps lacking was that they weren’t using winger Tom O’Flaherty as much as they could have. We know that O’Flaherty is one of the best wingers in the league in possession, and he has a desire to have the ball. Therefore, in the second half, he drifted inside to look for the ball, before running with it, as we can see happening in this image. He has the quality to change the game, and to make space where it wasn’t previously available, and Exeter used him more in the second half, which was one of the reasons why they were able to take more control after half time.
Exeter Chiefs’ defence
In the second half, Bath seemed to carry a little more threat, so Exeter Chiefs had to defend more. In the later stages of the game, we saw a slight alteration in their tactics, as they introduced centre Ian Whitten to the game, and this helped them to force Bath into making mistakes late on when in possession.
In this image, we can see how Bath flanker Tom Ellis has been closed down by Whitten, who had come on for Henry Slade to provide fresh legs. In getting this close, Whitten has forced Ellis to move the ball quicker than he would have liked to, increasing the chance of him making a mistake. The arrowed structure shows how Whitten’s main objective after coming on was to take time away from Bath, playing with more urgency, and his teammates were joining him in doing this.
We can see here another example of how Exeter defended with intensity in the later stages of the game. Bath, as mentioned, were now being forced to play longer passes, and here we can see substitute centre Josh Matavesi in possession for Bath. We know the threat that Matavesi brings to the team, able to crash through defenders at will, but he was being prevented from doing that here. Instead, he is forced to play a long pass towards full-back Anthony Watson (out of shot) on the wing, which is a little loose and gives Exeter the time to get up to Watson and close him down before he can gain control of the ball. A combination of Whitten and Olly Woodburn, Exeter’s other winger, ensured that Watson was pulled into touch, and Exeter won possession back simply by closing down Bath and putting them under pressure to move the ball around quicker.
Bath’s good play
We will now turn our attention in this analysis to Bath, and look at the good and bad of their performance in this game. We will start with the good.
The first thing we noticed that Bath were looking to do was to get their quicker players in between the Exeter Chiefs defenders, which is what we can see in both of these images.
The first image shows Anthony Watson in the middle of the pitch, trying to break through the Exeter defence when he could, as the yellow arrow shows, and taking the ball into tackles when he couldn’t. Watson is an attacking full-back who likes to create problems, and, right from the start, he was carrying the threat that Bath expected him to.
The second image shows Jonathan Joseph in between defenders, doing the same thing. This series of phases eventually ended when Bath prop Beno Obano was penalised for a knock-on. However, again, the quicker backs were getting forward and causing the problems.
The effect on Exeter of this was that they had to be extra vigilant in defence, because we know how much pace both Watson and Joseph have when they are allowed through, and Exeter, having looked to play through defensive gaps themselves, didn’t want to concede tries the same way.
Whilst this was a good tactic for Bath to have, it was clear that they were nervous in attack, and Director of Rugby Stuart Hooper admitted during the game that they had played centrally a lot, and not used the wings as much as they could have done. We know how much of a threat Bath pose on the wings, with Ruaridh McConnochie a serial try-scorer, and Joe Cokanasiga still getting back to full fitness, but looking sharper with every game he plays. Therefore, this is perhaps something that Bath could have done differently to get around Exeter’s strong defensive effort.
Indeed, this was clearly something that Stuart Hooper discussed at half time, because we can see here how, in the second half, Bath were looking to play on the wings much more. Joseph is making the pass to lock Josh McNally here, looking to use the space created by Exeter drifting inside, as the black line shows. Longer passes in the second half meant that Bath could move the ball around much quicker, and could use these spaces, and you can see the amount of time that Joseph has to make the pass to McNally. In the second half, after Ian Whitten came on for Exeter Chiefs, this changed, as we know, because he took this time away and nullified this tactic.
As mentioned, Exeter were strong defensively, and it took a lot to break through them. However, in these two images, we can see another interesting tactic that Bath used at points in the game to try and force a way through. They used decoy runners to take Exeter’s focus away from the Bath player in possession, therefore enabling Bath to have a better chance of getting the ball through them.
In the first image, Ben Spencer has passed to centre Cameron Redpath, who joined Bath from Sale Sharks in the season’s break. Redpath, who is in the yellow circle, then looks to pass the ball to fly-half Rhys Priestland. However, Exeter are not focusing on this, because Jonathan Joseph has made the run through the defensive line, as we can see from the red arrow. Priestland then passes to Watson, as the second yellow arrow shows, but the full-back is eventually tackled by Henry Slade.
This quick passing came off the back of a rolling maul on the nearside of the pitch, which sucked Exeter defenders into that area, lessening their numbers in other places. Bath are therefore looking to use this to their advantage.
The second image shows another time this tactic was used, in the second half. This time, it is Josh Matavesi who passes to Jonathan Joseph, with substitute prop Lewis Boyce acting as the decoy. This attempt came too late for Bath, who, at this stage, were well out of the contest, but you can see how they didn’t give up, and consistently looked to create space in the Exeter defence. Another attempt shortly afterwards saw Ruaridh McConnochie race through and gain a few metres for his team, but Bath were unable to make the chance count. However, you can see how this tactic worked, and how it enabled Bath to break Exeter Chiefs down at times.
The final point to mention in this section is that Bath looked to find a way to get around Exeter’s high defensive line.
In this image, we can see how Exeter are looking to take time away from Bath in possession, and the black line shows how their defensive structure was well set up to enable them to do this.
However, Bath decided to play their passes further back. Here, Priestland has passed to Redpath, and we can see how the centre is a little further back than normal. This means he can build up speed before he hits the Exeter defence, and Redpath does manage to get through here, as the yellow arrow shows, so this tactic did work. The downside of having a high defensive line is that it opens up a lot of space behind, and this was what Bath were looking to exploit with these runs through the line.
However, there were some negatives about Bath’s performance that we need to mention.
Here, we can see how Bath have broken through Exeter Chiefs’ backline, with Wales back row forward Taulupe Faletau in possession. However, his pass to his international colleague Rhys Priestland is made at just the wrong time, with Scotland captain and full-back Stuart Hogg in the right place to make the interception in between them, as the black arrow shows. The counter-attack from Hogg didn’t get too far, as he was tackled by Watson, but this was another warning for Bath that Exeter were switched on to every possible opportunity. It was also a missed opportunity for the away side to get a try, especially as a well-timed pass was all that was missing from this attack.
This image shows an attack by Exeter through Bath’s defensive line. Hogg, in the black circle, has passed to Ollie Devoto, who is looking to run through the gap between the two Bath players. You can see how Tom O’Flaherty, in the red circle, is a passing option if Devoto needs him, but he doesn’t, because the space is open for the centre to run through and get into the space behind Bath’s players. O’Flaherty has space to get through as well, because the Bath defence has become too narrow, leaving the wide space open.
The main point here is something we have looked at a lot in this article; the gaps between Bath’s players. Realistically, this was one of the main reasons why Bath lost this game, because Exeter Chiefs just kept running through them and getting into dangerous areas. If Bath want to be in this position next year, they will need to work on this, because if they don’t, opposing teams will latch onto this, using it to their advantage, meaning Bath will become easier to beat.
In conclusion, we can see how both Exeter Chiefs and Bath had good tactics in the field, and it came down to the defending as to who would win this game. Bath’s issues came from their gaps between players, whereas Exeter’s defending was fairly solid throughout the game. The Chiefs also adapted their tactics late on, closing down Bath’s attackers, and this stopped Bath posing much of a threat late on. Therefore, we can see what Bath need to work on ahead of next season, whereas Exeter Chiefs have a final at Twickenham Stadium against Wasps to look forward to, as well as their Champions Cup final against French giants Racing 92.