The second of this year’s two English Premiership semi-finals saw Exeter Chiefs take on Sale Sharks, who have proven to be one of the toughest teams to play against since Alex Sanderson took over as Director of Rugby. This match was a repeat of last week’s fixture, which saw Exeter defeat the visitors 20-19, also at Sandy Park. This game was just as close, with both sides having opportunities to win the game and seal a place in this season’s final against Harlequins, who had come back to win at Bristol Bears earlier in the day.
This tactical analysis will look in closer detail at Exeter’s and Sale’s tactics during the game, with a focus on Exeter’s attack and defence, Sale’s initial struggles and the better parts of their performance, all while finding the reasons why the home side advanced and the visitors’ season came to an end.
Exeter Chiefs Sale Sharks
15. J. Nowell 15. S. Hammersley
14. A. Cuthbert 14. B. McGuigan
13. H. Slade 13. R. J. van Rensburg
12. O. Devoto 12. M. Tuilagi
11. T. O’Flaherty 11. A. Reed
10. J. Simmonds (c) 10. R. du Preez
9. J. Maunder 9. F. du Klerk
- A. Hepburn 1. R. Harrison
- L. Cowan-Dickie 2. C. Langdon
- H. Williams 3. C. Oosthuizen
- J. Gray 4. C. Wiese
- J. Hill 5. J-L. du Preez
- J. Kirsten 6. T. Curry (c)
- R. Capstick 7. B. Curry
- S. Simmonds 8. D. du Preez
Exeter Chiefs’ attack
We will first examine Exeter Chiefs’ attacking play, which has been one of their strengths this season. They have plenty of quick players in the team, and always wait for the right opportunities to make forward runs.
One key aspect of Exeter’s game is to use the wingers as often as possible, stretching the play out and moving the ball into spaces before their opponents can get across to them. That tactic was present in this game too, with the ball being passed long here by fly-half and captain Joe Simmonds towards winger Alex Cuthbert. Sale Sharks full-back Simon Hammersley gets across to push Cuthbert out of play on this occasion, as the blue arrow shows, but this was a sign of Exeter’s early intent, as they wanted to have control from the very start. This was because the game was likely to be physical and tight, so scoring first would be crucial to either side coming out on top.
Both sides constantly tried to find gaps in each other’s defensive line, but it was Sale who left one open first, with Cuthbert running through here, taking the ball into the space behind. He made a few metres before being tackled, but did manage to offload to flanker Don Armand before hitting the ground, allowing Exeter to advance even further before the move was eventually ended. Sale needed to be wary of these gaps, as this was a game where small errors would be costly, and Cuthbert’s run was a sign of the threat Exeter pose when they are able to find gaps.
Cuthbert is moving back to his native Wales next season, joining Swansea-based Ospreys, so this type of play was a good way for him to say goodbye to Sandy Park.
What was increasingly evident was that Sale were defending in a desperate manner, trying to keep Exeter out, but the home side never gave up and kept pushing. They did get their rewards for this, as this image shows the phase immediately before they grounded the ball. The big factor in this try was the sudden change of direction from substitute hooker Jack Yeandle, with Sale expecting his run to come on the left, but Yeandle instead went to the right. This got the ball just short of the line, and it was then a simple task to finish the chance off, with substitute scrum-half Stu Townsend, in the black circle, passing to Cuthbert to score.
The gap between Sale lock Jean-Luc du Preez and winger Arron Reed was left open by Reed taking a step forwards, expecting Cuthbert to continue passing the ball along the line. This meant that he couldn’t get across to stop Cuthbert getting the ball over the line. Therefore, this demonstrates how Exeter had a good awareness when attacking, which helped them to convert opportunities and keep the pressure on Sale.
Exeter Chiefs’ defence
With the game being tightly-contested, defence was always going to be important in deciding who would win the game. Exeter Chiefs’ line was well-organised and proved difficult to break down on the whole.
Exeter always get tight to their opponents, taking time away and forcing them to make mistakes under pressure. This image shows how close they got to the Sale Sharks players when Sale were moving the ball around. The home side’s pressure on this occasion led to Hammersley, in the blue circle, trying to pass to centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg here, but it was loose and picked up by Exeter’s England centre Henry Slade, who proceeded to set up winger Tom O’Flaherty to score. This shows how Exeter’s defensive press was successful in its aims, as it forced Sale into making an error here that was then punished.
It should be noted that Sale were down to 14 players at this stage, with former Leicester Tigers centre Manu Tuilagi in the sin bin, and this may have led to the amount of open space Exeter found here. However, the underlying point is that the home side made the better start to the game, capitalising on Sale’s mistakes.
Their defensive pressing tactics continued in the second half. This image shows how Sale are trying to find a way through, but Exeter constantly got up to them before they could make any forward movement. Sale were going through the phases at this stage, keeping possession and looking to gain a few metres with each push, but they were always met by at least two or three Exeter players, just as Tuilagi, in the yellow circle, is here, having received the ball from fly-half Rob du Preez. Eventually, Sale gave away a penalty through substitute hooker Ewan Ashman, so that shows again how Exeter’s patience and continued defensive strength ensured they kept control of the game, even when out of possession.
Even in the closing stages of the game, Exeter continued to prove tough for Sale to break down, and this was almost certainly the reason for their win. As with the last image, it didn’t matter where Sale tried to attack through; they were constantly repelled by the Exeter players. Yeandle had a big impact when he came on, and was at the centre of most of this defensive strength. This was a clear example of Exeter’s excellent game management skills, as they knew at this point that they only had a couple of minutes left, so didn’t need to force anything.
Exeter Director of Rugby Rob Baxter made a big call with his team selection, naming England’s Jack Nowell at full-back and leaving Scotland captain Stuart Hogg, Exeter’s regular at 15, on the bench. Nowell brings an ability to fill spaces on the wings, because that is his natural position, so he effectively gave Exeter an extra winger, enabling them to stretch across the pitch more in defence.
Here, he is closing down Sale’s Scotland winger Byron McGuigan, who is trying to collect a kick pass from South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk. Like with Exeter, moving the ball across the pitch was a notable feature of Sale’s play, particularly early in the second half, so having the extra winger was important for the home side, and justified Baxter’s decision to start him.
Sale Sharks’ struggles
When it comes to Sale Sharks’ play, they took a little while to get into the game, because of Exeter Chiefs’ dominance in the early stages.
The visitors were unable to play an open game, and instead had to wait for their opportunities to break through and gain metres, as prop Coenie Oosthuizen is doing here. It took until 15 minutes in for Sale to start making these dents in Exeter’s line, but they never led to much. Oosthuizen’s push was ended when he was tackled by Joe Simmonds, and, even though he did manage to offload the ball to hooker Curtis Langdon before hitting the ground, Sale could only make small amounts of ground with each push, never able to break through entirely.
However, whilst some advances gained them ground, there were times that Sale lacked accuracy with the ball, meaning they couldn’t build any momentum. Here, Rob du Preez’s pass hits the ground between Hammersley and McGuigan, with the winger having to come inside and collect the ball rather than staying wide and attacking where the space was. Sale needed to have more composure on the ball in these situations, taking advantage of the spaces Exeter did leave open, because there weren’t many times that they did find space like this. The visitors’ inability to take these opportunities was one reason why Exeter came through as winners at the end.
Sale Sharks’ positive play
However, there were positives to Sale Sharks’ play, with one being their spatial awareness and ability to support each other in attack. This comes because they have a well-rounded squad, carrying plenty of threat throughout.
Here, Sale are attacking on the nearside wing, with Reed catching the kick from Rob du Preez directly from the restart and offloading to flanker Ben Curry, who has run around the outside to give the winger a passing option as Exeter close him down. The red arrow shows Curry’s path, whilst the yellow illustrates the overlapping run from van Rensburg, allowing Sale to set up a 2-v-1 situation against Exeter scrum-half Jack Maunder on the outside.
This move leads to a try, so demonstrates clearly how their awareness and ability to support each other was key to them staying in the game. This was something the home side needed to be aware of, because Sale are one of those teams that can never be counted out of matches, for this reason.
Sale’s spatial awareness is again highlighted in this image. This time, Rob du Preez has seen how high up the pitch Exeter have come, playing a grubber pass into the space behind. van Rensburg spots the opportunity, running through another gap to meet the ball and score. At this stage of the game, this was a crucial try for the home side, as it kept them in the game and gave them something to build on.
It is worth noting that, had things gone to plan, van Rensburg would have been on the bench for this game, with Sam James starting at centre. However, an injury to James in the warm-up gave the South African his place in the starting XV, and he was arguably their most dangerous attacking player, as he so often is, with this being his second try of the game. This shows the depth Sale’s squad has, and why they have reached this stage of the season.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has shown how Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks, whilst not as high scoring a game as Bristol Bears’ loss to Harlequins, was just as entertaining a game, with plenty to pick out and talk about. Exeter will be the happier of the two teams, having secured a place in the final and kept their aim of securing back-to-back English Premiership titles alive. Their performance will please them, as there wasn’t a lot they did wrong, and their attack and defence looked solid. However, Sale should be pleased with their overall season, as their improvement under Alex Sanderson has been immense, and there is no doubting that they will be a team to fear next season if they keep putting on good performances and playing like this.