The English Premiership’s final round of planned fixtures for a few weeks had plenty of interesting games to entertain us. However, the one that easily caught our eye the most was a clash of the top two in the league; defending champions Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears, who were one of the play-off semi-finalists last season. This tactical analysis will look at how this game unfolded, focusing on Bristol’s tactics that helped them get through Exeter’s organised structure, as well as the reasons why Bristol scored in the second half and Exeter didn’t. We will also look at the positives in Exeter’s performance, which came despite them recording a second consecutive league defeat this season.
Exeter Chiefs Bristol Bears
15. J. Walsh 15. C. Piutau
14. O. Woodburn 14. L. Morahan
13. H. Slade 13. S. Radradra
12. O. Devoto 12. P. O’Conor
11. I. Whitten 11. S. Naulago
10. J. Simmonds (c) 10. C. Sheedy
9. S. Hidalgo-Clyne 9. H. Randall
- A. Hepburn 1. J. Woolmore
- L. Cowan-Dickie 2. B. Byrne
- H. Williams 3. K. Sinckler
- W. Witty 4. D. Attwood
- J. Hill 5. J. Joyce
- S. Skinner 6. S. Luatua (c)
- D. Armand 7. B. Earl
- S. Simmonds 8. N. Hughes
Bristol Bears’ tactics
The first thing we will look at in this analysis is the tactical ideas that Bristol Bears used to largely control proceedings. Exeter Chiefs are a very tricky side to play against, and most teams find it difficult to beat them, particularly at home, so that shows how well Bristol did to make them look relatively ordinary on their own turf.
We can see here how, even in the first minute, Bristol were up for the game, awake to the spaces, and always looking to make runs behind the Chiefs’ defensive line. Here, we can see how fly-half Callum Sheedy, in the white circle, has the ball, but, rather than passing it straight away, the Wales international holds onto it, before kicking it forwards into the space, as shown by the white arrow.
This is because Exeter’s England centre Henry Slade has looked to press the Bristol players behind Sheedy, as shown by the black arrow. This is a regular feature of Exeter’s game, and so Sheedy has been clever by allowing him to make the run, and then transferring the ball into the space behind. Bristol centres Piers O’Conor and Semi Radradra can now both run onto it, and both are dangerous in those areas, with plenty of pace, so this is an ideal pass for them. This time, however, it comes to nothing, but the intent was there, and Bristol had now shown that they would punish any space that Exeter left open.
Bristol’s kick passes into space is a constant tactic that they deploy. Callum Sheedy is the source of all their creativity, so, if he is given too much space, then Bristol will always pose a threat. We saw in the last image how he made the pass into space, and this image shows another example of his ability to set runs up for his teammates. This time, it is again Radradra, in the red circle, who is running forward to get on the end of the fly-half’s kick forwards, which is shown by the white arrow. The Fiji international then runs forward and gains ground for his team, and this perfectly demonstrates how Bristol like to play. As mentioned, this meant that Exeter couldn’t afford to leave any spaces open, and had to stretch defensively too, leading to the risk of gaps being left open between each player.
It wasn’t just in attack that Bristol’s tactics put pressure on the Chiefs. In this image, we can see how they played when out of possession. Exeter’s 20-year-old full-back Jack Walsh has the ball here, looking to run forward and cause problems for the Bristol defence. However, because of this, Bristol press each of the attackers, placing the pressure on them. They constantly looked to make 1-v-1 tackles where they could, leading to Exeter playing balls early and making mistakes in possession. Here, Bristol full-back Charles Piutau has made the move to tackle his opposite number; Walsh’s offload, marked by the black arrow, to Ian Whitten, playing on the wing instead of his usual centre position, was not as clean as it could have been as a result of this press. This slowed the ball down, and meant that Bristol had more time to get across and stop the attack coming to anything.
In the second half, they looked to play with more creativity in the central areas, hoping to find spaces to play in. However, in these situations, they were let down by little mistakes, ensuring that the second half was scoreless until the last twenty minutes or so. O’Conor has looked to pass the ball back to captain and flanker Steven Luatua here, but the offload is not good and the ball is dropped.
There is a chance that a good pass might have led to something here, because, if you look at Exeter’s defenders, you can see them all running towards the far side of the pitch. Therefore, if Luatua had been able to control the ball, the space might have opened up for him. It wasn’t just Bristol who had these passing errors; Exeter also made mistakes, as we will later come on to, but it meant that neither team could really get much momentum going at the best of times.
This section has looked at Bristol’s tactics, picking out the small details that helped them to play against and match the Exeter threat. The Bristol coaching staff had done their homework before this game, and had clearly worked out how to put the pressure on Exeter, and it worked. However, you may have read this section and asked whether Exeter had any good moments in the first half, and they did. This is what we will come to now.
Exeter Chiefs’ positives
Exeter Chiefs generally play with a high tempo of passing, moving the ball quickly and always looking for small gaps in opposing ranks. By doing so, they are able to get behind them, and that is where they are difficult to stop. In the image below, we can see this in action.
Bristol are defending well here, but they have left a small gap open, as shown by the white line. This is all Exeter need, and fly-half and captain Joe Simmonds, in the black circle, passes the ball out to centre Ollie Devoto, in the red circle. He then quickly offloads to the other centre, Slade, who has run around to offer the passing option for his teammate, as the yellow arrow shows. By getting into this position, the England international can then run through the gap and look for a route to the try line. Whilst the interplay is good, the chance eventually comes to nothing, but we can see from this how Exeter’s quick play tactics help them to take advantage of defensive gaps, and this is why they are so hard to defend against.
Again, we can see here how Exeter have found another gap in the defence, and this time it does lead to a try. More quick passing means that the ball is in this area before Bristol Bears have had a chance to come across and block the space off, and Joe Simmonds is again involved, passing to hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie here, as the black arrow indicates. What was particularly important here is that Simmonds didn’t wait to be tackled, and instead offloaded the ball early to his teammate.
This is the way to break Bristol down, because, as mentioned, they lose the time to get across and stop the ball getting out to the wing. This leads to players being isolated, and we can see how scrum-half Harry Randall, in the white circle, is now in a 1-v-5 situation as a result, with the white line indicating the space between him and his teammate further infield. Eventually, the try is scored by England lock Jonny Hill, but what was more important here was the build-up, as it showed that, despite not looking their best, the Chiefs still had the quality in their team to speed up the play, making quicker passes and finding spaces.
The other positive in Exeter’s game was the performance of Jack Walsh, particularly in the first half. Walsh is an attacking player who normally operates as a fly-half, but was deployed as a full-back for this game. He is someone who likes to run into spaces and receive the ball where he can make things happen; we can see him doing just that here, spotting a gap, as the black arrow shows, receiving the ball from Devoto and then offloading it quickly to winger Olly Woodburn, who is outside him. Therefore, he plays his part in helping to move the ball around the pitch at speed, and, at 20 years old, the Australian looks to be a really good player for the future at Sandy Park.
As far as this game went, he looked to be in the same mould as Scotland captain and regular full-back Stuart Hogg, who is one of the best full-backs in world rugby. This is because Walsh attacked well, and always looked to get involved in the play; these are essential things to have to play in this Exeter side.
Therefore, we can see how, despite the points not being scored, there were some good parts to Exeter’s game. However, they just seemed to lack momentum at times, and a huge number of penalties conceded and individual errors with the ball were the reasons for this.
Why Bristol Bears won the match
The second half was just as well-fought and tightly contested as the first had been, but Bristol Bears always looked to be the team most likely to score. In the image below, we can see an example of a handling error that Exeter Chiefs made that halted their run forward.
The Chiefs just weren’t as clinical in possession as we have become used to seeing them be, and this was perhaps down to communication at times as much as anything. This particular example came from a loose pass behind the player running forward, and all it achieved was to slow their attacks down and give Bristol more time to come across and close off the spaces. This was in contrast to the examples we showed previously, where co-ordinated passing and good communication helped them to take advantage of spaces, and, in one case, score a try.
However, Bristol did play well in the second half, always looking to have control of the game. In this image, we can see how they defended as a team, leaving no gaps between each player, and this is how they always look to set up, and is why they are so difficult to break down. The white line shows Bristol’s defence, and the red line indicates Exeter’s attacking position at this point. Notice how close to each other they are; this shows how close Bristol gave Exeter no space to work in, making it very hard for the Chiefs to get through them. It also meant that any mistakes Exeter made with the ball could be easily pounced on and punished, ensuring that the home side had plenty of pressure on them to keep hold of it.
In attack, Bristol were just as co-ordinated, as we can see in this image. Piers O’Conor and Semi Radradra have taken up good positions to receive the ball when it emerges from the breakdown under the posts, and, when it reaches him, O’Conor moves it quickly to his Fijian teammate, who then runs to score the try, as the yellow arrow shows. This type of movement is just what Radradra brings to the team, and why he is so crucial to Bristol posing a threat in games. The Bears had to be patient for most of the match, but they got their reward with this.
From Exeter’s point of view, this was a poor try to concede. They defended reasonably well overall, but, here, they had two players going for O’Conor, due to a lack of communication. This is shown by the two white arrows, with the curved one indicating the indecision about where to go from the inside defender. This opened up the space for Radradra to score a relatively simple try, but we can see how it could have been avoided if one defender had run in his direction.
In conclusion, we can see how Bristol Bears played well in defence and attack in the second half, and how Exeter Chiefs made errors that meant they could never really get going in the second half. From the points we have made, it is clear that Exeter seem to lack confidence at the moment, and the reasons for that are unclear. However, there is nothing to worry about, as they are too good a team to go on a poor run for too long. As far as Bristol are concerned, this result proved that they are genuine title contenders this season, after making their name last season and reaching the play-offs. They are not the only ones closing in on Exeter in terms of performances, but you definitely feel that they have the quality to beat any team when they are playing well, and that is what is important.