The 2021/2022 English Premiership season is beginning to near its conclusion, with teams now fully focused on sealing play-off positions, places in next year’s Champions Cup or simply finishing as high up the table as possible. Leicester Tigers have already secured their place in the top four, but Saracens had a chance to join them over the weekend when they hosted another team in the play-off chase, Exeter Chiefs. Exeter have not been at their best this season and knew that a win at the StoneX Stadium was the minimum requirement if they wanted to extend their campaign.
However, as this tactical analysis will show, this was not to be, with the Chiefs having some periods of good play but looking below their normal standards overall. The analysis will also highlight Saracens’ tactics throughout the game, showing why they were essential in deciding the outcome of this match.
Saracens made nine changes in total from their narrow home victory against Cardiff, with plenty of first team regulars returning to the fold. Those dropping out included centre Dom Morris, who was not included in the matchday squad, whilst England star Maro Itoje had picked up a minor knee injury during that game. Props Richard Barrington and Alec Clarey, hooker Kapeli Pifeleti, back rower Jackson Wray and Scotland duo Andy Christie and Duncan Taylor were all named on the bench, whilst a late injury blow saw Max Malins also forced to miss this game, having originally been named among the starters. Loosehead Eroni Mawi came off the bench to start, with Jamie George and Vincent Koch making up the front row, whilst Nick Isiekwe replaced Itoje at lock and Theo McFarland and Billy Vunipola came in to complete the pack. Wales’ Nick Tompkins and England’s Elliott Daly made up the midfield pairing, whilst Malins’ withdrawal meant that Alex Lewington was promoted from the bench to start on the wing.
Exeter Chiefs, meanwhile, made just three alterations to the team that lost on the road to Munster in their last outing. Tighthead prop Harry Williams picked up a minor problem before this game, meaning that Marcus Street was included and partnered Alec Hepburn and captain Jack Yeandle in the front row. The other changes were more eyebrow-raising, with Joe Simmonds dropping to the bench and Henry Slade, normally a centre, starting at fly-half for the first time in five years. Tom Hendrickson partnered Ian Whitten in the midfield, whilst star flanker Dave Ewers was left out altogether, with Richard Capstick his replacement.
It was evident from the outset that Saracens were going into this game with a clear idea of how they wanted to play, putting pressure on Exeter Chiefs and trying to force them into making mistakes and ceding crucial territory.
With neither team creating much space in the opening stages, both had to search for alternative ways to gain ground. Saracens opted to run at the Chiefs line and force them backwards, whilst also using their strength to stay up for as long as possible, as Vincent Koch is doing here. Once the South Africa international had presented the ball backwards, Saracens had made a small gain, and a few of these in succession helped them to make the better overall start to the game.
What they were hoping was that, by continually keeping Exeter under pressure, a gap would open up for them to break through the Chiefs’ players. However, on this occasion, when it did come, the pass from captain Owen Farrell to Elliott Daly lacked the necessary quality, meaning that Saracens lost ground and had to go again. However, it was clear that getting into the game by testing their opponents’ strength was something they had spoken about beforehand, and was a key aspect of their game plan.
Daly had a really important role in his team’s attacking play, as he constantly made well-timed movements that allowed Saracens to keep the ball moving and make breaks through the Exeter line at speed. As the black arrow shows here, he has run around Koch and Farrell to offer them a flatter passing option, positioning himself before they have begun to look for a pass, and that in theory gave Exeter less opportunity to make a tackle.
However, on this occasion, Exeter’s Scotland international Sam Skinner did well, anticipating play and making a good tackle on Farrell to prevent him from releasing Daly. Despite it not working on this occasion, this was clearly something that Saracens had been working on during their pre-game preparations, as a similar situation had led to Daly finding a way through and scoring the game’s opening try.
In the second half, play was more open, with both teams going for the win, and Saracens had been trailing at the half-time break. Therefore, they knew that they needed to be more creative in possession in order to break the Chiefs down, and one player who was central to their second half dominance was Farrell, who constantly found space and was largely responsible for their win.
Here, he is putting a grubber kick through the Exeter line for Daly and full-back Alex Goode to chase down, having seen the area marked by the yellow square which his teammates can attack into. On this occasion, Exeter winger Olly Woodburn got back well to tidy up under pressure, but it was clear that Saracens were becoming increasingly confident in what they were looking to do, which was another key reason for their win.
When out of possession, they showed good anticipation, especially when it appeared that they had lost their line discipline. Here, substitute winger Rotimi Segun has made a really good recovery tackle on Exeter full-back Stuart Hogg, meaning that the Scotland captain’s pass did not reach Whitten, in the yellow circle, and instead went too far in front of him, leading to the centre fumbling the ball and the try-scoring opportunity not being taken.
At this stage of the game, good defensive work was critical, with the Chiefs looking reinvigorated by the second half introduction of scrum-half Stu Townsend, so Saracens needed to stay strong in these situations and see the game out.
Exeter Chiefs in possession
Whilst they did lose the game, Exeter Chiefs can still be happy about some elements of their performance, and Director of Rugby Rob Baxter was pleased with large parts of their play in the first 40 minutes.
Something that we noticed a lot of from the Chiefs was that they were looking to exploit the blindside as often as possible, trying to break through the Saracens defence where it appeared weaker. On most occasions, they tended not to get too far, as they got too close to touch and went out of play, but this situation actually led to a try, showing that persevering with this tactic was a good idea.
It was always going to be interesting to see how Henry Slade approached his new position, given that a fly-half is typically the source of their team’s creativity and needs to be good at finding spaces to kick into. Slade, however, loves to run with the ball when possible and at speed, and this benefitted his team here, with his run getting the ball behind the Saracens defence and giving scrum-half Sam Maunder the time to set up Skinner, who went between Nick Isiekwe and Tim Swinson to finish the move off.
This one moment of positive play was what Exeter had needed, with the confidence that it gave them leading to another try shortly after, scored by Woodburn.
However, a big reason that they lost this game was that, aside from these breaks, they didn’t look like causing Saracens many problems. Here, their other winger, Tom O’Flaherty, has come inside the pitch and is now looking for a way through the home side’s defensive line. However, with Saracens defending well and showing good organisation, key players like O’Flaherty, who is one of Exeter’s key threats, were not able to show what they can do, and the winger was tackled well on this occasion by Theo McFarland.
It was moments like this that demonstrated why the Chiefs have been struggling throughout the current season, with them never looking like turning their possession into anything. There was also a lack of energy at times, which will have concerned the coaching staff, given the importance of this match in the context of their season.
Exeter Chiefs out of possession
There wasn’t much to be pleased about when Exeter Chiefs didn’t have the ball, as this was when communication broke down and Saracens were given plenty of opportunities to attack behind them, with Farrell the main beneficiary.
This situation shows the start of the move that eventually led to Scotland winger Sean Maitland’s second half try for Saracens. The Chiefs are normally a very good defensive side, and have proven to be tough to break down in previous campaigns, pressing the ball together and taking time away from their opposition. This time though, Jack Yeandle went early and his teammates didn’t immediately follow him, meaning that a gap was created in their line.
Once the Exeter captain had moved out of line, Exeter were immediately at a disadvantage, with Farrell able to simply edge past him and set up Alex Lewington in the open space behind, and this particular move only ended when Lewington was brought down by O’Flaherty and Whitten on Exeter’s 22m line. Given that the move started a long way inside Saracens’ half, this would have been a worry for the Chiefs.
This image shows the situation only a few phases later, with Saracens once again pushing to find a way through. Again, they ran into the line and looked to gain territory whilst recycling the ball at speed to prevent Exeter from forcing a turnover. However, what really let the Chiefs down here was their lack of basic desire, with Maitland finding it far too easy to run between Marcus Street and flanker Jannes Kirsten, neither of whom could make a tackle.
This is not the sort of defending that we have come to expect from Exeter, and yet this season it has been a key reason for their struggles. Therefore, they need to look at these situations and work on being harder to beat, just as Leicester Tigers did when they were struggling.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the key English Premiership match between Saracens and Exeter Chiefs, picking out the reasons for Saracens’ bonus point win and analysing why Exeter went back to Devon with nothing. The bonus point was critical for the home side, as it mathematically assures them of a play-off position, but what Director of Rugby Mark McCall will be most pleased about is their current performance level, with the team looking very sharp both in attack and defence.
Exeter’s fate, meanwhile, is now out of their hands, with Gloucester and Northampton Saints both having a game in hand over them in the fight for the top four. Their performance wasn’t a bad one, but it was just full of poor moments that let them down, and that is what will be the most disappointing for them.
Saracens’ next game sees them travel to Worcester Warriors on Saturday afternoon, whilst Exeter Chiefs have the week off and will be anxiously watching Gloucester’s and Northampton’s games to see whether this defeat proves costly for them. As they are also out of the Champions Cup, they won’t be back in action until 20 May, when they go to Bristol Bears.