Many teams in the English Premiership have things to fight for in the closing stages, with some big clashes in the next few weeks. However, they don’t come bigger than this one, with defending champions Exeter Chiefs travelling to Ashton Gate to face Bristol Bears, the team looking to depose them in a few months’ time. The game itself was not particularly high-scoring, but there were still plenty of tactics to pick out and look at. This tactical analysis will focus on Exeter’s tactical play, as well as Bristol’s positives and negatives, seeing why they ended up on the losing side of the final score.
Bristol Bears Exeter Chiefs
15. C. Piutau 15. S. Hogg
14. N. Adeolokun 14. J. Nowell
13. P. O’Conor 13. H. Slade
12. S. Bedlow 12. O. Devoto
11. L. Morahan 11. T. O’Flaherty
10. M. Malins 10. J. Simmonds (c)
9. A. Uren 9. J. Maunder
- Y. Thomas 1. B. Moon
- B. Byrne 2. L. Cowan-Dickie
- K. Sinckler 3. T. Francis
- D. Attwood 4. J. Gray
- C. Vui 5. J. Hill
- S. Luatua (c) 6. S. Skinner
- D. Thomas 7. J. Vermeulen
- J. Heenan 8. S. Simmonds
Exeter Chiefs’ tactical play
We will first look in this analysis at Exeter Chiefs’ tactical play, and how this performance showed that they are still very much a team to beat.
In attack, we know that Exeter like to play quick passes and move the ball around the pitch at speed, always looking for gaps in opposing defences to play through. This game was no different, but what they did change was the angle of their passes. Instead of playing the ball down the line in a horizontal fashion, they opted to play it backwards, as the white arrow in this image demonstrates. This time, fly-half and captain Joe Simmonds is passing to centre Ollie Devoto, but it was the same every time Exeter moved the ball around the pitch.
This gave them more time and space to make decisions, meaning they didn’t lose possession as easily when the Bristol Bears players pressed them. It also gave them more momentum to run forward at, building up a little more speed before hitting Bristol’s defensive line, increasing their chances of breaking through it. Therefore, it was a clear example of Exeter’s pre-match preparation, seeing how Bristol would look to defend against them and adapting to it.
Their attacking play was built on a strong defence, which was a big positive for them throughout the match. The white line in this image shows their organisation in the early stages, ensuring there was no way for Bristol to get into the space behind them. The home side were trying reverse passes, quick passes and moving the ball around the pitch in different ways, but couldn’t find a way through, constantly being repelled by the Exeter defenders whenever they hit the line, ending up losing the ball here to an Exeter jackal and counter. Therefore, we see how Exeter’s defence was a key factor in them eventually winning this encounter.
In the second half, this strong defensive play continued. In this image, we see what has now become a familiar sight in games involving Exeter, with Bristol full-back Charles Piutau, in the red circle, moving the ball out to the far side wing. Flanker Dan Thomas and winger Niyi Adeolokun are both available as passing options, running into the open space ahead.
Normally, this leads to teams breaking through and scoring easy tries, with the wide channels having been Exeter’s Achilles heel this season. However, this time, Exeter centre Henry Slade and winger Jack Nowell closed off the space, tackling Adeolokun and preventing Bristol from scoring. To add to this, Exeter actually win the ball back in this situation, clearing it to safety.
This is the Exeter we have not seen much of this season, stopping opponents getting through on the wings and giving them no clear opportunities to get behind them. It is likely due to the return from a long-term injury of Nowell, as this is the influence and importance he has on a game, and why he is such a crucial player for Exeter and England. We know that Slade has the speed to get across, but it is the two-player effort that is important here. Again, it was moments like this that helped them win the game.
We have mentioned how the away side were organised in defence, but they had to defend more scrappily in the closing stages of the game. This was largely because they were attacking so much, so didn’t have a defensive line set up. Here, Bristol centre Piers O’Conor is looking to break free, but is brought down well by two Exeter players.
This was really impressive commitment from Exeter, working hard to ensure Bristol couldn’t get out of their own area and almost suffocating them at times. Bristol did win a penalty directly after this, with substitute hooker Jack Yeandle going off his feet on the ground, but Bristol really struggled to find anything in the last quarter of the match, and that was because of Exeter’s excellent play.
It wasn’t all positive for Exeter in defence, though, as their tactics did lead to some nervous moments. As well as their quick passing, the other thing they are known for is squeezing opposing attackers and forcing them to make errors in possession. However, Bristol are a team that this can sometimes backfire against, and this image shows one time it did.
In order to press effectively, Exeter need to work as a team, and, this time, Devoto lost line discipline and went too far forward, leaving a gap for O’Conor, in the red circle, to run through. O’Conor is one of those players you cannot give space like this too, because he is a willing runner and a very dangerous player when on the front foot. This is only a small negative in an otherwise very good Exeter performance, but it is still something worth noting.
Bristol Bears’ positives
Bristol Bears are arguably the team to beat in the Premiership at the moment, and played with their usual flair at times in this match too.
We have already mentioned how Exeter Chiefs played passes backwards and not horizontally, because of Bristol’s high pressing game. Here, Joe Simmonds has the ball, but Bristol’s pressure forces Exeter into making a mistake, with full-back Stuart Hogg’s pass to Nowell on the nearside wing going loose. Exeter like to move the ball quickly, but Bristol were making them move it even quicker than usual, which was clever. Therefore, like Exeter, they had a clear plan in the first few minutes for how to approach this crucial match.
When attacking, Bristol used the spaces well. Here, scrum-half Andy Uren, in the red circle, has found space to score the opening try of the game, but there is a lot to pick out from it. Firstly, it owed a lot to Charles Piutau’s long run forward, having taken possession in his own try area, before combining well with Adeolokun to set up Uren. Secondly, Exeter’s defence is threadbare here, because their forwards have just been involved in a scrum in Bristol’s half of the pitch.
This demonstrates how quickly Bristol and Piutau moved the ball, taking advantage of the enormous space ahead of them. Exeter winger Tom O’Flaherty tries to make the first tackle on Uren, but doesn’t hold him, allowing the Bristol scrum-half to get up legally and continue his run.
The third and final factor in his success is the movement of Hogg, with the Scotland captain moving across the pitch, as the white arrow indicates. This means that Uren has a gap to run through, increasing his chances of scoring.
This was clever play from the home side, attacking quickly to ensure they hit Exeter where they were weakest, and getting their quick players onto the ball helped them advance into this area before Exeter could cut them off.
Piutau is always a key player on the pitch for Bristol, and is unquestionably one of the best full-backs in the Premiership. He always gets involved in defending around the pitch, giving his team extra strength where needed, and, in attack, he makes moves into gaps to offer a passing option. Here, he has positioned himself on the wing, looking to use his speed to find a way through Exeter’s players.
As mentioned, this has been Exeter’s weak spot this season, so perhaps having Piutau on the pitch and giving him the freedom to get into these spaces was Bristol’s way of exploiting it. This particular move doesn’t lead to anything, as Slade comes in to tackle Adeolokun, as you can see, but it is still significant that Piutau was getting into these spaces.
He continued to create problems for Exeter in the second half, again getting up in support of his teammates. Generally, he was the first player in the line when the ball was on the ground, and his teammates know that, when they get the ball to him, he makes things happen. Here, he runs into the gap, as shown by the red arrow, but is tackled by Hogg. However, before hitting the ground, he makes a clever offload, dummying the high pass before sliding it under the arm of Exeter’s substitute scrum-half Stu Townsend. This offload sets up winger Luke Morahan to score in the corner, so shows again how important the former New Zealand international is to his team.
Bristol Bears’ errors
Ultimately, though, Bristol Bears lost the game. This was down to mistakes being made around the pitch, which gave Exeter Chiefs the opportunities to control the game.
In contrast to Exeter’s well-organised defence, which Bristol found hard to break down, the home side left gaps open for Exeter to attack through. Here, Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, in the white circle, has found a small amount of space, setting up South African flanker Jacques Vermeulen to run towards Bristol’s try line. This chance doesn’t lead to anything, but was a sign of Exeter’s constant threat, and was a warning for Bristol of what would happen if they kept leaving gaps open.
This image shows another example of Exeter breaking through Bristol’s defence. Star number 8 Sam Simmonds has made the run through, before offloading to O’Flaherty, who has got through to support him in the open space. Simmonds has the awareness to time his pass, waiting until the last minute to ensure that Piutau can’t make the interception, and, despite Morahan’s attempts to come across and block his run, O’Flaherty goes over for the try. Quite simply, Bristol were punished by their opponents for making the exact same mistake.
We also saw a lack of composure from them at times, which could have been down to Wales fly-half Callum Sheedy’s current injury, as he is usually the one directing their play. There were a lot of balls being dropped, like this one, which has slipped through the fingers of substitute prop John Afoa, after a relatively easy pass from Uren. This gave Exeter the ball in a really cheap fashion, and some of their tries were the result of penalties won from Bristolian mistakes. It looked at times like the home side were not quite on the same wavelength as each other.
This is another example of a ball being dropped, with the pass from O’Conor going behind substitute Alapati Leiua, in the red circle. This lost Bristol their momentum, as Leiua had to stop and collect the ball, but dropped it forwards. Again, Exeter have been given the ball too easily, allowing them to launch an attack and force their opponents back towards their own try line.
One explanation for these errors could be that the pressure was getting to the players, with Bristol knowing how close they were to sealing top spot in the league, giving them a home play-off semi-final, and also the fact that they were playing the side looking to beat them to the top. Whatever the reason, they didn’t seem to have their usual fluidity in parts of this match.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the crucial game in the English Premiership between Bristol Bears and Exeter Chiefs. We have focused on how Exeter built their game on a strong defence, using it to launch attacks whenever Bristol gave them the ball through an error. We have also looked at the positives and negatives of the home side’s play, finding the reasons why they played well in some moments, but struggled to get going in others. It is likely that this was a blip for Bristol, because we know how good a team they are, but it also showed how, when up against their title rivals on the field, they still have a little way to go to match them.