Gloucester came into this English Premiership game in good form, having lost just once since the beginning of October, and have shown a lot of improvement after last season’s tepid performances saw them finish second-bottom. However, a home test against an Exeter Chiefs team still recovering from a slow start was always going to be tricky, and it proved to be a closely-fought encounter at Kingsholm, with both sides having good and bad moments during the game. This tactical analysis will look in detail at Gloucester’s struggles and the many areas where they did well, and will also focus on how Exeter improved in the second half, with a change in tactics key in helping them to secure the win.
Gloucester made five changes to the team that defeated Newcastle Falcons last weekend, with centre Mark Atkinson and winger Jonny May away with England, whilst Argentina lock Matias Alemanno had a shoulder injury, and fly-half Lloyd Evans and Russia’s Kiril Gotovtsev moved to the bench. Into the starting XV came tighthead prop Fraser Balmain, who took Gotovtsev’s place in the front row, as well as Scotland international Andrew Davidson, who partnered Freddie Clarke in a makeshift second row. Another Scotland star, Adam Hastings, returned at fly-half after missing last weekend’s game, whilst the absences of Atkinson and May meant that Billy Twelvetrees and Santiago Carreras were also given starts, playing at centre and wing respectively.
Exeter Chiefs, meanwhile, rang the changes after their surprise home defeat to London Irish on the same day, with seven alterations in total. Centre Henry Slade and lock Jonny Hill were enforced absentees, as they were also on England duty, whilst loosehead Ben Moon and fly-half Joe Simmonds dropped to the bench. Star back rower Sam Simmonds, prop Sam Nixon and winger Tom O’Flaherty missed out on the game altogether. The new-look front row saw hooker and captain Jack Yeandle flanked by regular starting props Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams, whilst Sean Lonsdale replaced Hill at lock, and Don Armand came in at flanker, with Richard Capstick moving to number 8. In the backs, Joe Simmonds was replaced by Harvey Skinner, Ollie Devoto partnered Tom Hendrickson in the midfield, and O’Flaherty’s absence allowed Argentina’s Facundo Cordero to start on the wing.
Gloucester may be a vastly improved side this season, but they do still have a few issues in their play that need to be improved, with this section of the analysis highlighting where they were responsible for Exeter Chiefs winning the contest.
In this image, Adam Hastings is attempting a dummy pass out towards the wing, but is too slow and Exeter get up to tackle him, with Hastings’ lack of speed meaning that the visitors could read it and hold their positions. Gloucester do manage to drive them back and prevent them making any ground here, but concede a penalty in the process, allowing Exeter to put the pressure straight back on them.
The key point here is that Gloucester made some basic errors in the early stages of the game, which has been typical of them recently, and has led to them not making the most of their opportunities. In this case, the Cherry and Whites needed more speed when passing around the pitch, as Exeter’s defence was proving tough to break through, so quicker ball movement might have opened up a gap for the home side to exploit.
Gloucester had a lot of control before half-time, but unravelled slightly as the second half went on, with more and more errors creeping into their game. Here, Hastings is passing towards the nearside of the pitch, but his attempt goes beyond the last player in the line and Tom Hendrickson picks it up and runs forwards. Whilst Gloucester full-back Jason Woodward and Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit both got to Hendrickson quickly, this was not the only time that Gloucester gave the ball away cheaply, so there were clear indications of them losing the confidence they had shown in the first half.
These small moments, when put together, demonstrated how Gloucester were giving Exeter plenty of chances to keep the pressure on them, so tidying up these areas needs to be a priority if they want to keep challenging for a top six spot this season.
Gloucester’s positive play
However, there were plenty of things that Gloucester can be happy about, and Exeter Chiefs undoubtedly had to work hard to break them down and gain the win.
Their driving mauls in particular were proving troublesome for Exeter, with this image showing a rolling maul following a Gloucester lineout. Exeter have been caught out and sent spinning around the side of the maul, giving Gloucester a route to the try line, and hooker Jack Singleton gets the try from this chance. This was the third maul in a few minutes for the Cherry and Whites, with each one leading to the Chiefs giving away a penalty, so it was a tactic that worked for the home side, and was clearly something that they had looked at beforehand. Exeter are known for their attacking lineouts and rolling mauls, so this was Gloucester playing the visitors at their own game.
The other attacking positive was that Hastings and Santiago Carreras were both on the field, as that gave Gloucester a creative edge that helped them pose a constant threat. Here, Hastings has kicked the ball over the top of the defence, with Carreras running through to meet it behind the Exeter players. Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg did tackle the Argentina international here, meaning that Gloucester weren’t able to get beyond this point, but it still showed their pace and ability to change the direction of play when needed, with a lot of this game built on phases of passing along the line from both teams, so small gains like this made a big difference.
Defensively, the Cherry and Whites were well-organised, particularly in the first half. Hendrickson is trying to run outside Rees-Zammit here, heading towards the wide channel, where Gloucester looked weaker. However, he is chased down by Chris Harris, who brings him down well and ends his run. The Scotland international is one of the best defensive centres in the league, and his presence was key to the home side’s strength out of possession, which helped keep Exeter out.
Exeter’s frustrations at not being able to break through the defence meant that they continually gave away penalties, so the pressure on them was definitely telling, and that was a clear positive for Gloucester.
This image shows another occasion when Gloucester left the wing open, but recovered well to stop a try being scored. This time, flanker Sam Skinner is looking to run through and score, with the white arrow showing his path to the try line. However, Woodward’s run across the field means that he is instead driven into touch, with the yellow arrow indicating the path Skinner was forced on here. Woodward was supported by Rees-Zammit and scrum-half Ben Meehan, and this again showed how Gloucester caused the Chiefs plenty of problems, and weren’t allowing them to play their usual game. This highlights the improvements they have made this campaign.
Exeter Chiefs’ mixed game
We know that Exeter Chiefs have not been playing as well as they did in 2019/2020, when they last won the English Premiership, and their opponents have been able to target key areas of their game.
It is common knowledge that the Chiefs like to force their way through gaps in opposing defences when in possession, so it was vital that Gloucester maintained their line discipline and didn’t create doglegs for the visitors to run through. Lock Will Witty, who has been in fine form this season, is looking to run between former Edinburgh lock Andrew Davidson and Georgian prop Val Rapava-Ruskin, but both Gloucester players work together to force him backwards, holding him up and regaining possession. Exeter were being continually frustrated in these moments, because, in the early stages at least, they couldn’t establish themselves in the game and convert their possession into anything meaningful.
However, whilst the last image was down to Gloucester’s early defensive strength, this image shows Exeter making their own mistake, with scrum-half Jack Maunder attempting to clear his lines, but his kick is too short and comes down in the yellow square, with the yellow circle indicating where Maunder cleared it from. Whilst the lack of distance was the first error, the second was that none of the Exeter players caught the ball when it came back down, allowing Gloucester number 8 Ben Morgan to take control and pass it into the space further up the field. Exeter’s defence hasn’t been as sharp this season as we know it can be, and this was one example of an error that they may not have made previously.
The Chiefs looked much better in the second half, with a better idea of what to do when in and out of possession. We mentioned previously how Gloucester continually left the wide channels open, narrowing up inside the pitch, but Exeter didn’t have the right players available in those moments. However, this time, centre Ollie Devoto has the ball, with Harvey Skinner outside him, whilst Facundo Cordero is making the angled run to expose the gap. The Argentine is a quick player who likes to beat defenders with his footwork, and this was the case here, with his break drawing the defenders’ attention away from his teammates, allowing Skinner to continue his run and create a 2-v-1 behind the defence.
This combination play between Cordero and Skinner led to Alec Hepburn’s try, so it is clear how the increased speed of their attacks, as well as getting the right players in the right areas, made a big difference for them, and helped them to come back and win the game.
The second half also saw the Chiefs make a change in their tactics, as they looked to kick up the field more and not run with the ball into the Gloucester defensive line as often, because this had proved difficult in the first half. This image shows Scotland captain Stuart Hogg catching Hastings’ cross-field kick to Carreras and clearing up the pitch, forcing the Cherry and Whites to run backwards and allowing Exeter to squeeze them into their own third. This tactic was working for Exeter, and brought them plenty of rewards, as another kick up the field just before this had been knocked forwards by Rees-Zammit in front of his try line, leading to a scrum which Witty scored a try from.
The main reason they turned to this as a way of playing was because it kept Gloucester on the back foot, increasing the pressure on them as the game went on. Gloucester clearly felt this, and they were unable to play on the front foot as often as they had beforehand, so it was another key reason for Exeter’s turnaround and eventual win.
In conclusion, we have seen in this tactical analysis that both sides had positives and negatives in their performances, and both will feel that they had opportunities to score more points than they did. However, whilst Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter will be pleased with the way his team fought hard to come back and win what was a really tight game, Gloucester counterpart George Skivington will no doubt feel hard done by, given the hard work his players put in throughout the contest. However, the Cherry and Whites have a lot to be proud of, and the fact that this was their first loss in a month demonstrates the huge overall improvements that they have made this season, so there is no need for them to panic after the Chiefs’ second half comeback.
Gloucester have next weekend off, with their next fixture seeing them host struggling Bath in two weeks time. Exeter Chiefs, meanwhile, are back at home next weekend, with Newcastle Falcons the visitors to Sandy Park on Saturday evening.