After many months of English Premiership rugby, only two teams remained in the fight to become 2020/2021 champions. Exeter Chiefs were looking to secure back-to-back titles, whilst Harlequins were hoping to become league winners for the first time since the 2011-2012 season. This tactical analysis will look in greater detail at what turned out to be a very good final, with plenty of tactics on show at Twickenham Stadium and lots to pick out and analyse. We will focus on Harlequins’ strong performance and the reasons that they won, as well as Exeter’s tactical play and the gaps they left in their defensive line for Harlequins to exploit.
Exeter Chiefs Harlequins
15. J. Nowell 15. T. Green
14. A. Cuthbert 14. L. Lynagh
13. H. Slade 13. J. Marchant
12. O. Devoto 12. A. Esterhuizen
11. T. O’Flaherty 11. C. Murley
10. J. Simmonds (c) 10. M. Smith
9. J. Maunder 9. D. Care
- A. Hepburn 1. J. Marler
- L. Cowan-Dickie 2. S. Baldwin
- H. Williams 3. W. Louw
- J. Gray 4. M. Symons
- J. Hill 5. S. Lewies (c)
- J. Kirsten 6. J. Chisholm
- R. Capstick 7. J. Kenningham
- S. Simmonds 8. A. Dombrandt
Harlequins’ strong performance
Harlequins were the underdogs going into this game, with many expecting Exeter Chiefs to pick up another title to add to their collection. However, Exeter have not had consistently good results this season, whilst Harlequins have been on a great run since Billy Millard took over from Paul Gustard on an interim basis earlier in the season, so nothing could be counted out.
Harlequins had to be strong defensively, as we know the threat Exeter pose whenever they get near their opponents’ try line. Here, their excellent setup forced Exeter into making mistakes whenever they got the ball, with captain and fly-half Joe Simmonds receiving the pass from scrum-half Jack Maunder, but he is unable to gather the ball cleanly before being tackled by Harlequins’ scrum-half Danny Care. This was only one example of Harlequins taking time away from Exeter, and it meant that they had control of proceedings in the early stages of the game.
However, even when Exeter are second-best in a match, they nearly always find a way through. It didn’t take them too long to break through Harlequins’ line here, with Scotland lock Jonny Gray scoring their first try of the game. However, the pressure they were under was a sign that Exeter would not have everything their own way in this clash.
In the second half, Harlequins tried to use the spaces more, increasing the pressure on Exeter’s defence. Fly-half Marcus Smith, in the red circle, directed play from the middle of the pitch, and we can see how he has space available on the wing here, making the pass into it. Harlequins were flooding these gaps with quick runners as often as they could, constantly giving themselves passing options and ways to get behind Exeter.
The reason Exeter had left so much open space here was because winger Alex Cuthbert, who was playing his last game for the team, had injured himself. As a result, the other winger, Tom O’Flaherty, and full-back Jack Nowell had to cover the spaces, meaning their defence was not as organised as it normally is.
As mentioned, Smith was at the heart of all of Harlequins’ attacking play in the second half. He was clever with the ball too, waiting before passing to full-back Tyrone Green here, in the yellow circle, and that delay forced Joe Simmonds to commit to running forward. As a result, when Green receives the ball, there is a simple 2-v-1 against O’Flaherty. Simmonds’ run forward also means that O’Flaherty has to cover the gap, leaving Harlequins winger Louis Lynagh open and allowing him to score.
This was impressive tactical play, and demonstrated the threat Harlequins pose when they get into dangerous areas. When we consider the reasons why the London side won this final, it is moments like this that helped them to get over the line.
Exeter Chiefs’ gaps
Exeter Chiefs didn’t play badly, despite ultimately finishing as runners-up. However, one area where they constantly let Harlequins get behind them was their pressing when out of possession. We know this is one of their key tactics, but Harlequins had a plan to exploit it as often as possible.
Here, in the fourth minute, Exeter have formed a V-shaped defensive structure, leaving gaps open between individual players. No other team has so far punished these, but Harlequins did, with flanker James Chisholm running through after receiving the pass from Smith, indicated by the yellow arrow. The gap between Gray and Jonny Hill, the other Exeter lock, is not massive, but was big enough for Harlequins to make small gains and push Exeter back, and that is the point here.
Exeter’s defence was strong on their own try line, and this was one area where they were better than Harlequins. Exeter had managed to score two tries from close range in the early parts of the game, with Harlequins leaving a few spaces open, but Exeter were more compact in the same situations, working together to drive Harlequins back every time they tried to find a way through.
However, despite this, Exeter did again make a mistake which allowed Harlequins to score. Prop Wilco Louw has turned expertly here, ensuring that he went down over the line, grounding the ball between Hill and flanker Jannes Kirsten. Number 8 Sam Simmonds, recently voted the Premiership’s Player of the Season, had tried to make the tackle, but hadn’t reached the ball. As a result, the gap was left open, as the black line shows, and Louw went in to score the try. Therefore, despite some good defending, Exeter were continually being let down by the small gaps they were leaving open.
Harlequins didn’t stop finding spaces in Exeter’s defence, with Care passing to Smith here. Exeter expected the ball to be passed down the line, so came off their line to close it down. However, Smith changed the direction of play, offloading to number 8 Alex Dombrandt, in the yellow circle, who made the run behind Exeter centre Ollie Devoto and through the gap, scoring an easy try. It was the vision and quick thinking of Smith that created this chance, and he was the one dictating most of Harlequins’ attacking play once back from the sin bin.
Exeter Chiefs’ tactical play
There were plenty of good parts to Exeter Chiefs’ performance as well though, and one thing we always see with them is players in wide channels, giving them width and passing options and the ability to stretch out their opponents.
However, it was strange that Exeter didn’t use those options at times, with O’Flaherty making the short pass to Cuthbert here instead of the long one to Luke Cowan-Dickie. The England hooker was in a good position to run at the try line here, and we know he poses a threat in this area, so he might have been the better option to pass to. This is highlighted by the fact that Cuthbert was tackled by Harlequins centre Andre Esterhuizen shortly afterwards, with the ball being turned over to Harlequins, so this was a good opportunity missed by Exeter.
In the second half, they again got players into the wide channels, with Sam Simmonds, who has now scored 21 tries in the Premiership this season, in that space. Centre Henry Slade again opts not to use him this time, but Simmonds had broken through just before this, in a situation that led to Harlequins being dragged towards the wing and leaving spaces open centrally; Devoto had taken advantage of this to score the equalising try. Therefore, having powerful players in these wide areas might have been something Exeter spoke about at half-time, and helped them to take more control and maintain the pressure on Harlequins.
When out of possession, Exeter tried to keep Harlequins has far back as possible. We have already looked at their try line defending, but they also had to work hard in the middle of the pitch too, with this image showing how they closed Green down when he caught Maunder’s high kick. Cuthbert is the one who brings the South African down here, and the reason he was targeted is because of the threat he poses when allowed to run with the ball. Therefore, it was a constant feature of Exeter’s defensive play to get up to him early and prevent him getting forward, lessening Harlequins’ potency in attack.
Exeter’s defence was their main priority as the game approached its conclusion, knowing they were winning the game at this stage. We know that opponents can break through their defence when gaps are left open, but, when Exeter have everyone back and maintaining line discipline, they are very difficult to beat. Harlequins’ substitute hooker Joe Gray doesn’t make any ground at all here, with the combined weight and power of Exeter prop Harry Williams and substitute hooker Jack Yeandle pushing him backwards.
Ultimately, Harlequins had to work hard to create gaps in the closing minutes of the game, with Exeter having tightened up defensively after half-time. However, Lynagh’s two tries shortly after this reminded us that Harlequins’ biggest strength is never knowing when they are beaten, and that has been one of their key characteristics since Billy Millard took over.
We know that Exeter have a good attack, but one thing that was evident in this game was their excellent positioning. This image shows the build-up to their late try from substitute full-back Stuart Hogg. Kirsten, in the black circle, has found a small pocket of space, and, instead of attacking alongside those ahead of him, holds his position before joining Yeandle in a second push, supporting the initial break forward. This creates a 2-v-1 situation, with Kirsten going through a gap between Lynagh and substitute prop Will Collier, before setting up Scotland captain Hogg to score.
This was another example of the quality of Exeter’s performance, and highlighted how, even in the latter stages of the game, they were constantly thinking about where they could give themselves the best opportunities around the pitch.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has shown that both Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins had excellent performances, contributing to one of the best English Premiership finals we have ever seen. However, what made the difference was Harlequins’ mentality, always finding a way through and punishing any small mistakes that Exeter made. Exeter will be disappointed to have lost this game, but, if we look back at their season, they have lacked consistency with their performances, and this game highlighted that. They now have a chance to work on the things that went wrong and come back stronger next season, ready to engage in another title fight, but they could find that Harlequins are the pace-setters, if this game is anything to go by.