With the Six Nations on its first tournament break last weekend, the English Premiership and other domestic leagues once again became the focus of rugby fans’ weekend viewing. Whilst the headline game was Leicester Tigers’ trip to old rivals Bath on Saturday (even if it was top versus bottom), one game that caught the eye was Newcastle Falcons’ home game against Exeter Chiefs. Both of these teams have underperformed so far, with Newcastle struggling for consistency, whilst Exeter did show signs of improvement after a slow start, but have generally been below their usual standard. As a result, both teams were desperate to claim the win.
This tactical analysis will look at the tactics used by both sides in this game, focusing on the Falcons’ initial strength out of possession and the problems they experienced, whilst the analysis will also look at the Chiefs’ attacking play, seeing why it was a problem area for them at Kingston Park.
Newcastle Falcons made six changes to the team that lost to Bristol Bears in their last match, with centre Pete Lucock, scrum-half Sam Stuart and back rowers Will Welch and Scotland international Gary Graham dropping out altogether (Welch was a last-minute injury withdrawal), whilst tighthead prop Mark Tampin and England winger Adam Radwan were both named among the replacements. Into the front row came Trevor Davison, who started on the bench against Bristol, whilst flanker Connor Collett, scrum-half Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti and back Tom Penny also made the transition to the starting XV from the bench. Josh Basham was called in to fill the absence left by Welch, whilst Fiji-born back George Wacokecoke partnered Argentina international Matias Orlando in the midfield.
Exeter Chiefs, meanwhile, opted for just two alterations from their home win against Gloucester the previous weekend, with scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne dropping out of the matchday squad, whilst Argentina international and former Falcon Santiago Grondona moved to the bench. In came Sam Maunder, who was picked ahead of his brother Jack to partner captain Joe Simmonds in the half-back pairing, whilst Scotland’s Sam Skinner started alongside Don Armand and Richard Capstick in the back row, with Capstick switching to number 8 to accommodate Skinner’s inclusion.
Newcastle Falcons’ strength out of possession
Exeter Chiefs experienced problems from the very start of the game, as they had a lot of possession but couldn’t find a way through the Newcastle Falcons defence. Whilst this was partly down to their lack of a clinical edge, they were also hampered by Newcastle’s strength and organisation under pressure, and the home side deserve credit for this.
What was obvious every time Exeter tried to come forward was that Newcastle were teaming up and working together to force them back, with visiting winger Tom O’Flaherty, normally an agile attacker who is tough to bring down, being tackled by Tom Penny here. However, what is key here is that Penny, who was one of the standout players for the Falcons, has support from Matias Orlando, and this is what gave Newcastle the power in defence that frustrated their opponents. Exeter had 27 continuous phases of play in the early stages, with this being the 13th of those. However, the reason that this chain ended was not because they scored points, but because they passed the ball out of play through a moment of miscommunication, and that was likely down to them having run out of ideas of how they could break through Newcastle’s sturdy defensive line.
Whilst that example was down to them not finding a way through, they did also demonstrate a poor conversion rate, as mentioned. Here, they have won a lineout and taken the ball down well, with Sam Maunder now looking to move the ball into the open field. However, his pass to centre Tom Hendrickson was made before he had looked at what was going on around him, meaning that he missed Newcastle fly-half Will Haydon-Wood coming out of the defensive line to make the interception.
This error led directly to the first try of the game, with Haydon-Wood running the length of the pitch to score, and rugby games can change on moments like this. From an Exeter point of view, it could have been avoided, and it seemed as if their failure to score earlier on had cost them. However, Newcastle will be happy with the way that they anticipated the play and were able to end the danger, and the fact that there was a try at the end of this was a bonus.
Newcastle Falcons’ problems
However, whilst these were positive aspects of Newcastle Falcons’ play, there were also a few issues within their performance, which ultimately came back to haunt them at the end of the game.
It was rare to see them get into the Exeter Chiefs half during the game, such was the visitors’ territorial dominance. However, when they did, they had a clear idea of how they wanted to create opportunities, with quick passes and intelligent movement helping them to break through gaps in the Chiefs’ defence.
What let them down with this was an occasional lack of composure, with this pass from USA lock Greg Peterson not gathered cleanly by hooker George McGuigan, in the yellow circle, allowing Exeter to regain possession. Exeter had more players around the ball, as is natural, so there were gaps for Newcastle to exploit, and better ball distribution might have led to this happening with more success.
As the second half progressed, Newcastle struggled to show the same level of composure and strength, and Exeter gained momentum and confidence, resulting in them looking more likely to convert their chances. The numerical disadvantage caused by home back rower Callum Chick’s red card was also a key factor in this, as gaps were starting to appear for the Chiefs to run through, which is where they are always dangerous.
At half-time, they had introduced Argentina international Facundo Cordero for Josh Hodge, and he is a player who can give the team more quality going forwards when they need a spark. His attacking run here led to Exeter getting into the Newcastle half, with Joe Simmonds now passing to winger Olly Woodburn (out of shot). However, Don Armand is the key player in this situation, as he is in open space on the nearside wing.
Newcastle are looking to come up the pitch and close the ball down, with England hooker Jamie Blamire, Connor Collett and back rower Will Montgomery all moving forwards here. However, because this is a 4-v-3 situation, with the wing exposed by all three defenders being in the middle, and this was the difference between the Falcons’ first and second half defensive performances. Now, they didn’t have players available to team up and stop Exeter moving forwards, and this was why they were less rigid and Exeter had more spaces to play in.
Another of Newcastle’s current issues is that they have a lot of key players injured, and this has also contributed to their poor form on the field. Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti, for example, was their only fit scrum-half for this game, which meant that fly-half Joel Hodgson had to play in this position when he came on, but the fact that it is not his natural role meant that he inevitably made mistakes, with this one costing the team the win. Hodgson is putting the ball into the scrum, but doesn’t notice the trailing leg in the middle, meaning that the ball doesn’t travel far enough to allow Newcastle to hook it backwards.
This is all the encouragement that Exeter need to drive forwards, winning the penalty and subsequently kicking the ball through the posts to win the match. Again, rugby is a game of small margins, and Newcastle will feel that not having a scrum-half available in this situation was what let them down.
Exeter Chiefs’ attack
Whilst Newcastle Falcons played well and didn’t deserve to lose, Exeter Chiefs will know that they need to do better in the future, as their performance was not where it needs to be at this stage of the season.
It was evident that the weather conditions were having a big effect on the game, and this image indicates one situation that could have gone Exeter’s way on another day. Newcastle full-back Mike Brown, who joined last summer from Harlequins, has edged towards O’Flaherty here and left a gap slightly open for Hodge to kick through, which he does. This gives O’Flaherty something to chase down, but the wet ball evaded him and the opportunity was missed. It seems harsh to criticise the winger for this, given that the conditions undoubtedly led to him not scoring when he ordinarily would have, but this was a chance that Exeter needed to take, especially as they had already conceded the first try by this point.
Another issue that the away side experienced throughout the game was that their normally reliable lineout wasn’t functioning properly, with a good number of steals in the air. This meant that they couldn’t take advantage of when they had kicked the ball into touch within range of the try line, and they also had problems with their rolling mauls when they did manage to get the ball down. This maul has become stuck, with the ball now trapped in the middle of the players, and this made it inevitable that Exeter would concede a penalty for either collapsing the maul or not releasing the ball in time, which is exactly what happened. The point to take here is that Exeter’s usual weapons weren’t working for them, and this was another reason that they couldn’t take their chances.
In the second half, Newcastle mostly operated with a flat defensive line when out of possession, looking to ensure that there were no gaps left open for Exeter to run through. This was likely due to them having one less player and knowing that they needed to be compact when out of possession, making it as difficult as possible for Exeter to gain ground.
However, from Exeter’s point of view, this gave them more space to move the ball around and look for the best way to break through the defence. As a result, there was an added level of creativity in some of their ball movement, as well as an increase in their running speed, all of which led to more strength when they collided with the Newcastle players. This meant that they could push the Falcons back with each drive, and loosehead prop Alec Hepburn’s run forwards here from Sam Maunder’s pass was one that caused a particular amount of damage. This is the Exeter that we know can turn up to games, but we haven’t seen it enough this season, which is one reason that they have struggled to break into the top four.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the performances of both Newcastle Falcons and Exeter Chiefs in this game, seeing how Newcastle aimed to frustrate Exeter and how the Chiefs lacked quality in key moments. Exeter will be happier, as this win has kept them just two points behind fourth-placed Gloucester, but the Falcons will be pleased with their overall performance, as there were some excellent individual performances from the likes of Penny, McGuigan and lock Sean Robinson. Therefore, there are positives for them to build on.
Newcastle Falcons’ next game is hugely important in the context of their season, as they host Bath at Kingston Park in a battle at the bottom. Exeter Chiefs, meanwhile, travel to Franklin’s Gardens for a meeting with a Northampton Saints side who are only six points behind them, so a win there will be important in keeping them at bay and maybe forcing their way into the playoff positions.