The new English Premiership season is still very young, but already there have been some huge stories coming out of the top flight, including the vast number of teams making an early bid for the title and the sad plight of Worcester Warriors, who have this week been suspended from all competitions (men’s and women’s) due to major financial concerns at the club.
The match results have also been worth keeping up with, as there have been shocks and surprises in every direction. Sunday’s meeting between Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins at Sandy Park was no different, and, as this tactical analysis will indicate, it was a hugely exciting match which could have gone either way in the end. Harlequins undoubtedly had a first half to forget, but they came out after the break and played like a completely different team, whilst Exeter dominated the first 40 minutes but ended up having to ride the storm in the second half as they fought to maintain their excellent start to the campaign.
Exeter Chiefs made five changes to the side that picked up a fairly dominant win at Worcester in the previous round of matches, with hooker Jack Yeandle and Irish centre Rory O’Loughlin dropping to the bench whilst tighthead Marcus Street, lock Jack Dunne and versatile South African forward Jannes Kirsten were all left out. Harry Williams and Luke Cowan-Dickie returned to the front row, with loosehead Alec Hepburn keeping his place, whilst Zimbabwe-born Dave Ewers and another summer signing, South African second row Ruben van Heerden, were also included in the pack, having come off the bench in the second half at Sixways. The final new name in the XV was England’s Henry Slade, who partnered Ian Whitten in the midfield.
Harlequins, meanwhile, opted for just four changes after their home loss to Saracens last time out. Fly-half Marcus Smith had completed his mandatory rest period after featuring for England in the summer and replaced Italy standoff Tommaso Allan in the starting XV, whilst hooker Jack Walker, tighthead Wilco Louw and back rower Archie White all came off the bench to take their places in the pack, replacing George Head, who was named as a substitute, Will Collier and Alex Dombrandt respectively, with the latter two picking up injuries last weekend. However, a fifth alteration was needed before the game as England loosehead Joe Marler, originally named in the XV, was unwell and so didn’t travel to Devon. He was replaced by Argentina international Santiago Garcia Botta, who had initially been named as his understudy.
Exeter Chiefs’ attacking threat
This was expected to be a hard-fought game, with both Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins having a tendency to get forward and break through gaps in opposing lines, and many had a feeling that they would cancel each other out. However, as it was, some poor defending from the visitors allowed the home side to take control of the game and utterly dominate the first half, meaning that they went in at the break by far the happier side.
One aspect of their performance that will have pleased Exeter was the way that they moved the ball around the pitch, and it is common knowledge that head coach Ali Hepher, who has taken over matchday duties from Director of Rugby Rob Baxter, has focused on increasing his side’s accuracy with the ball. As a result, they have tended to play shorter passes around the pitch and not take too many risks, and that worked for them in this game too.
Here, Harlequins’ Joe Marchant has come too far inside and left his wing open, which is all the invitation that Exeter need. They showed last week against Worcester that they will punish these mistakes, and winger Olly Woodburn here times his pass towards Wales flanker Christ Tshiunza to perfection to achieve the same result. In this case, Harlequins’ defending let them down, as neither Wilco Louw, Marchant or full-back Tyrone Green could make a successful tackle on Tshiunza, but nothing should be taken away from how the Chiefs exploited the space and had the composure to take full advantage of the error.
Exeter also anticipated play much better than their opponents, with this situation showing another time when they took advantage of a mistake by Harlequins, this time in the middle of the field. On this occasion, Harlequins have moved the ball out from the back of a scrum and are now looking to launch an attack, but the pass from scrum-half Lewis Gjaltema was not gathered by centre Lennox Anyanwu. As a result, he became a sitting duck for Exeter to target, with fly-half Harvey Skinner running in to win possession for his team.
Again, Harlequins will know that they should have done better here, but Exeter, and Skinner in particular, deserve credit for the way that they spotted the opportunity and closed their opponents down at speed, and the fact that this led to another try showed again how much of a threat and how confident they were in what they were doing. Therefore, this is another sign that the tactics they are playing with under Hepher are working for them and making them a more dangerous team to play against.
When they did need to build play and be patient, Exeter showed a strong carrying ability and continually looked to punch holes in the Harlequins defensive line, with locks Ruben van Heerden and Scotland international Jonny Gray particularly important in this aspect of the game. Again, this is something that they have clearly been working on in pre-season, because Leicester Tigers and Worcester both struggled to keep them out once they found their way into the 22, and Harlequins had just as many problems.
What really caught the eye with this particular move was how clever they were when transferring the ball across the pitch, and the key moment here was when Joe Simmonds, who has been deployed at full-back so far this season, made a reverse pass to Luke Cowan-Dickie, with visiting flanker Jack Kenningham coming out to tackle Simmonds as he had not been expecting this pass to be made. As a result, there was now a gap open behind him which Cowan-Dickie could drive forwards into, with him getting beyond the 5m line before eventually being taken down by Louw and Marchant.
Whilst this particular push didn’t lead to anything, the Chiefs did score only a few phases later through scrum-half Stu Townsend, showing again how relentless they were and how difficult they were proving to be to keep out. However, on this occasion, it was the little touches like this reverse pass that created the opportunity, which demonstrates how they do have a softer side to their game as well as making plenty of ferocious carries.
Harlequins’ poor play
Whilst there is no denying that Exeter Chiefs appeared unstoppable in the first half, they were helped, as has been mentioned, by plenty of mistakes from Harlequins, who will know that they were far from their best in the first half. Quite frankly, visiting head coach Tabai Matson will have had his head in his hands over his team’s performance before the break, both with and without the ball.
The visitors were under pressure from the start, with Exeter taking the first points when Harry Williams found his way over the line, but it was their reaction that was really telling as to how the half would go. Rather than refocusing and composing themselves, they made error after error and invited the constant pressure from their opponents, which is where the Chiefs are most dangerous.
Here, Gjaltema has rushed his pass, with the ball bouncing around him, and that meant that Marchant also couldn’t gather it up once it had come towards him. However, whilst that was poor in itself, what Harlequins will be most disappointed about here is that they had a gap ahead of them that Marchant and fellow centre Luke Northmore could have attacked into, so having more composure with the ball would have given the team an opportunity to force Exeter onto the back foot and into an area where they have not been at their best so far this season. Instead, because of the fumble, Henry Slade was able to make a tackle and remove that possibility, with Harlequins’ untidiness letting them down.
A lack of quality in possession was a running theme for the visitors, with this situation again showing them in a position where they can look to get forward with the ball. However, Gjaltema’s pass into the middle of the field following the lineout is too short, forcing Smith to step back in order to control the ball. As a result, any Harlequins momentum evaporated, with Smith’s pass to flanker Will Evans not leading to anything as the Chiefs once again got up the field and looked to win back possession on the front foot, this time through Dave Ewers driving into Evans and Williams, Gray and van Heerden offering support. However, again, Harlequins had a chance to get forward and were let down by their own mistakes.
It would have been easy for the London side to accept at half-time that this game was beyond them, given the margin of the scoreline at the break (31-7 in Exeter Chiefs’ favour). However, to their credit, they recomposed themselves and came out in the second half looking like an entirely new team, with more quality in possession and more precision in key areas of their play.
In this case, the ball has once again reached Anyanwu, but this time he has managed to collect it well and hasn’t rushed the opportunity. As a result, he has identified where there is a space in Exeter’s line and where he can help Harlequins to get up the pitch, with this run towards Alec Hepburn and van Heerden keeping both players in their current positions and freeing up Northmore, who was excellent in the second half, passing to him just before the former was tackled to ensure that neither Hepburn nor van Heerden could get across and block the run off.
Although Slade on this occasion managed to get back and tackle Northmore, this showed early on that Harlequins had come out with a new lease of life and would be a more dangerous opponent for Exeter in the second half.
However, it was a warning that the Chiefs failed to heed, with Harlequins demonstrating more and more confidence as the game went on. Here, they have got the ball out of a scrum (which was uncontested for the majority of the second half due to both Harlequins hookers going off injured), and they managed to move the ball into the space quickly and give themselves a good chance of finding a gap.
From Exeter’s point of view, they needed to hold their positions here in order to not allow any spaces to open up, but Ian Whitten came across towards Skinner and left too big a gap open between himself and his midfield partner Slade. As a result, the England international needed to come across and cover the threat from winger Cadan Murley, who received the pass from Smith here, but that then opened up another gap between him and Woodburn for Northmore to run into, with this leading to another try for the visitors as they continued their second half resurgence. Once again, the Chiefs could have done better defensively, but it was another situation where Harlequins showed what they can really do when at the top of their game.
There was also more variety in Harlequins’ play as the game went on, with Smith looking to mix things up and play a few grubber passes into the spaces behind the Exeter defensive line to give his teammates something to get on the end of. This had not been possible in the first half due to the away side not being good enough with the ball, but it was clear that the confidence that they were playing with was seeping through the whole team and they were all starting to be more adventurous in possession.
On this occasion, both Marchant and Northmore got through the Exeter line without being tackled, with the former meeting the ball and offloading to the latter, and this would have led to a try had Murley managed to control the ball cleanly when it came to him. However, whilst Harlequins this time didn’t manage to convert their clever play into a try, they did force Whitten into going off his feet in an attempt to slow them down, meaning that he was sent to the sin bin. As mentioned, Exeter have not been at their best when going backwards, and this highlighted that point.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the English Premiership match between Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins, in what turned out to be a well-contested match that could have gone either way in the end. Exeter Chiefs’ main feeling after the game will have no doubt been relief, having seen their commanding half-time lead drain away as the game went on, but the fact that they kept fighting until the end and, for the second time in three games, scored a try at the death to win the match showed again how they will be tough opponents to face in 2022/2023.
Harlequins, meanwhile, will be pleased with the way that they reacted to their poor first half, but will know that, realistically, it was those moments that let them down, as Exeter would not have won this match if they had not scored as many points as they did before the break. Therefore, whilst there are obvious positives for the visitors to take, there are also a lot of things that they still need to work on if they want to stay in the title hunt.
Both Exeter and Harlequins have been in Premiership Rugby Cup action during the week, but Exeter’s next Premiership fixture sees them visit Sale Sharks on Saturday afternoon. Harlequins, meanwhile, will be at home to Northampton Saints in Sunday’s match.