The English Premiership’s defending champions Exeter Chiefs have not had the easiest season so far, finding themselves in inconsistent form in recent weeks, with eight wins and four losses in their 12 games so far. This game saw the Chiefs travel to the Recreation Ground, otherwise known as the Rec, to face a Bath side who are gradually showing signs of improvement after a slow start to 2020/2021. This tactical analysis will look at how Exeter struggled to implement themselves into the game in the first half, allowing Bath to dominate its early stages. However, in the second half, Exeter changed their tactics to come back and comfortably win the match, and we will look at exactly how those alterations helped them to do that.
Bath Exeter Chiefs
15. T. de Glanville 15. S. Hogg
14. R. McConnochie 14. F. Cordero
13. J. Joseph 13. I. Whitten
12. J. Matavesi 12. O. Devoto
11. W. Muir 11. T. O’Flaherty
10. R. Priestland 10. J. Simmonds (c)
9. B. Spencer 9. J. Maunder
- B. Obano 1. A. Hepburn
- T. Dunn 2. J. Innard
- H. Thomas 3. H. Williams
- J. McNally (c) 4. J. Gray
- E. Stooke 5. S. Skinner
- T. Faletau 6. D. Ewers
- S. Underhill 7. J. Vermeulen
- Z. Mercer 8. S. Simmonds
Bath’s promising start
Bath started the first half well, and it was clear that they had come up with a game plan for how to beat Exeter Chiefs, which involved keeping them as far back as possible. In the image below, we see how they looked to find spaces in the Exeter defence to run through.
Scrum-half Ben Spencer, in the blue circle here, is looking to take the ball forward, but is tackled by Exeter prop Harry Williams and centre Ian Whitten. Whilst this particular run didn’t lead to anything individually, it helped to push Exeter back towards their try line. Exeter are most dangerous when on the front foot, so keeping them pinned back with tactics such as this was key to stopping them playing their usual game, and that was important for Bath if they wanted to have any chance of winning the match.
When they did find space in these gaps, Bath were clever with the way they used it. Here, we see how centre Josh Matavesi, in the blue circle, has looked to offload the ball in a gap whilst being tackled by Exeter captain and fly-half Joe Simmonds and Whitten. What is notable is that the offload is behind the defensive line, which gives the Fiji international’s supporting teammate, full-back Tom de Glanville, a better chance of winning it and running forwards with momentum. Again, this doesn’t lead to anything, as Exeter were defending well and making it hard for Bath to find space like this on too many occasions, but it highlights how much confidence Bath were playing with, and this was what caused Exeter problems in the first half.
Bath’s main tactic to help them find space was to move the ball from side to side constantly and at pace. This stretched the Exeter defence out, forcing them to leave gaps open for Bath to exploit. Here, we see how England international Jonathan Joseph, one of Bath’s most dangerous players on his day, is passing out to Matavesi, in the yellow circle. The blue arrow shows the distance of the pass, and therefore the speed with which Bath were moving the ball around the pitch. Exeter were defending narrowly, as you can see from the white line, so this also helped Bath in finding space.
Therefore, it is clear that Bath were the team on top in the opening stages of the game, and Exeter were struggling on the whole to work out how to play against them.
Exeter Chiefs’ first half
However, Exeter Chiefs did have their own moments of quality in the first half. In the image below, we see an example of one notable tactic that they used to speed up the play.
Here, hooker Jack Innard, in the white circle, who was handed a start in this game in place of the suspended Jack Yeandle, has taken the ball from the lineout and run forwards with it. The significant thing about this was that Exeter opted not to go through rolling mauls from lineouts, as is usually the tactical choice of most teams here. Instead, they looked to get the ball to the back and pass it out to the backs, who could then run forwards and put pressure on the Bath defence as quickly as possible. This gave them a good chance of attacking the Bath defence before the forwards had emerged from the lineout.
This type of quick play was a key feature of Exeter’s game in the early stages, as they needed to find gaps where they could, given Bath’s early dominance. Exeter’s first try came from a similar situation, when scrum-half Jack Maunder got the ball to winger Tom O’Flaherty out of the back of a lineout, with O’Flaherty finding a gap to score, so it just shows how much these quick ball movements helped Exeter to make their chances count.
Once Exeter had scored their first try, they took more control of the game. Number 8 Sam Simmonds, in the white circle, who has been the Premiership’s player of the season so far, was a constant threat for the away side, looking to run through the Bath defence as often as possible. Bath were having to defend much more at this point, and Exeter looked more confident as a result, because they were back on the front foot, which is where we know they are strongest. They also played even quicker passes around the pitch, making it harder for Bath to stop them, and Simmonds in this situation has a great opportunity to score, but is tackled by Joseph. However, he does score a few phases later, so, again, we see how Exeter were at this point having more influence on proceedings.
It wasn’t just in attack where Exeter had good moments in the first half. We mentioned how Bath were attacking constantly in the early parts of the game, but couldn’t find many spaces to get through. This was because of how Exeter were defending against them. Whenever any Bath player got forward, they were always met by at least two defenders, as the white arrows show, which constantly gave Exeter the advantage in these situations. Lock Dave Ewers was usually in the middle of these defensive efforts, as has been the case in every one of their games this season, and this and the two tries from O’Flaherty and Simmonds ensured that Exeter were still in the game at half-time, despite being second best for the majority of it.
Exeter Chiefs’ second half changes
After half-time, it was clear that Exeter Chiefs would need to make some changes to their play, and they came out with new tactics and a fresh game plan. The image below shows just one thing they did to turn the game in their favour.
Full-back Stuart Hogg is without question one of the best players on the planet at the moment, but Exeter didn’t really bring him into the game in the first half. However, in the second half, the Scotland captain was much more involved, giving Exeter a different weapon to use. In this image, we see how he offered a passing option on the wing when the Chiefs were looking to move the ball into space.
By getting Hogg into this position, it allowed Argentinian winger Facundo Cordero, brother of former Exeter winger Santiago, to play wider, stretching Bath’s defence even more. O’Flaherty is making the pass to Hogg here, with Bath leaving the gap open for him; this was the positive effect of getting the Scotland international into the game. Whilst Hogg was tackled by Bath winger Will Muir when he did get through here, the underlining point is that Exeter had these spaces in the second half, after struggling to break Bath down for the majority of the first 40 minutes.
Exeter also changed their lineout tactics in the second half. We saw in the first half how they looked to get the ball down and out of the back as quickly as possible, but, after half-time, Innard tended to throw the ball over the top of the lineout towards centre Ollie Devoto, in the white circle here. Devoto is an attack-minded centre who loves to push through defences and gain ground for his team, so, by getting the ball to him directly here, Exeter were again getting their quicker players into the game earlier and pushing Bath backwards.
We saw how Exeter defended well in the first half, leaving few spaces open, but they were always on the back foot when doing it. In the second half, as we see in this image, they were defending higher up the pitch, stopping Bath passing and advancing forwards as much. The blue square shows how Matavesi is passing to number 8 Zach Mercer, who will be moving to French Top 14 side Montpellier in the summer, but the pressure from Exeter’s arrowhead defence, indicated by the white lines, forces a mistake here.
Devoto is at the top of this defensive structure, but it is substitute prop Ben Moon who picks up the ball and runs with it here. Whitten is also involved, showing how Exeter got their backs playing more forward in the second half, again increasing the pressure on Bath. Whitten makes the tackle here, which is one of his strengths, as he is slightly more defensive-minded than Devoto, so balances the midfield out well for the Chiefs.
Whitten was arguably Exeter’s most important player in the match, because of his speed in getting up the pitch and closing down the Bath players in space. He anticipated the play well, making key tackles and interceptions where necessary, and was first to every situation when Exeter were out of possession. Here, Bath’s two centres, Matavesi and Joseph, are in the blue circles, with Whitten, in the white circle, getting between them and intercepting the ball. He gets unlucky here, as the ball is knocked on in his attempt to gather it, but what is key is that Bath only scored three points in the second half, and this was because of how Exeter kept their key runners pinned as far back as possible, targeting them with tackles and pass interceptions as often as possible.
In conclusion, Bath started the game really well, controlling the play and dictating each individual phase of the match. However, whilst Exeter Chiefs were initially forced onto the back foot in the first half, they still had good moments which gave them something to build on in the second half. The Chiefs came out with fresh tactics after half-time, and never looked back, and Bath simply couldn’t deal with them at times.
The Chiefs’ ability to adapt to games and constantly alter their game plan is the reason that most teams have found them difficult to beat in recent seasons. This season is different in that sense, but this game will give them confidence to put together and string of victories and get their title defence back on track. As for Bath, this result would have been disappointing for them, and they now sit 10th in the table after this weekend’s results, so, whilst there is no relegation from the Premiership this season, they need to turn good moments into wins if they want to climb back up the league before the end of the regular season.