The European Rugby Champions Cup is approaching the final stages of this year’s competition, with last weekend’s quarter-finals giving us some very interesting battles. Two of the four ties were all-French affairs, but the one that had perhaps the most attention on it was defending champions Exeter Chiefs against the team hoping to dethrone them, Irish giants Leinster, who travelled to Sandy Park knowing that Exeter had never beaten them. This tactical analysis will look at both sides’ play, focusing on Exeter’s tactics in the game, as well as the positives and negatives of Leinster’s play, explaining why Exeter had moments of quality, but also how Leinster managed to come through and win the tie.
Exeter Chiefs Leinster
15. S. Hogg 15. H. Keenan
14. O. Woodburn 14. J. Larmour
13. H. Slade 13. R. O’Loughlin
12. O. Devoto 12. R. Henshaw
11. T. O’Flaherty 11. J. Lowe
10. J. Simmonds (c) 10. J. Sexton (c)
9. J. Maunder 9. L. McGrath
- B. Moon 1. C. Healy
- L. Cowan-Dickie 2. R. Kelleher
- T. Francis 3. T. Furlong
- J. Gray 4. S. Fardy
- J. Hill 5. D. Toner
- D. Ewers 6. R. Ruddock
- J. Vermeulen 7. J. van der Flier
- S. Simmonds 8. J. Conan
Exeter Chiefs’ tactics
We will first look at Exeter Chiefs, detailing the tactics they played with. Exeter have become known for playing quick rugby, looking to find spaces and attack them as often as they can. In this game, they looked to get the ball moving as quickly as possible, and this was particularly notable at set-pieces.
Scrum-half Jack Maunder, in the white circle, has the ball, but didn’t pick it up from the back of the scrum, as is normal. Instead, number 8 Sam Simmonds fed it to him, giving Exeter an extra player here to help move the ball further along the line. We can see how there is a gap in the Leinster ranks, as indicated by the blue line, which Exeter are looking to break through, and their first try came when winger Tom O’Flaherty’s breached it. Leinster tend to get across the pitch quickly to defend these spaces, but Exeter’s passing was quicker, and that is the danger for opponents when the Chiefs are in possession. It was poor from Leinster to leave this gap open, but really clever from the home side to gain the extra player and take advantage of the space.
Exeter also worked out how Leinster wanted to play, looking to stop them using those tactics. Leinster’s game plan was to keep Exeter as far back as possible, preventing them from getting anywhere near their try line, because of the threat Exeter pose when bursting forwards from short distances. To do so, they kicked into Exeter’s half whenever they could, forcing their hosts backwards. Centre Robbie Henshaw is looking to kick the ball here, but has been charged down by his opposite number, Ollie Devoto. This was in the second half, so shows how Exeter learnt throughout the game about their opponents, aiming to nullify their tactics whenever possible.
Despite this, Leinster never went away, and Exeter had to keep pushing at the front to create opportunities. This image shows the strong Leinster defence that they faced, which was well-organised and tough to break down. Exeter needed to go through the phases in these situations, as they had to keep possession, needing the points, so couldn’t just kick the ball over the top and risk Leinster clearing it. The home side continually tried a range of short and long passes in their attempts to create a gap, and looked to get their big ball-carriers and creative players involved in the frontline charges as much as possible. However, Leinster held firm, not allowing Exeter to punch any serious holes in them, and this strength was a big reason for the Irish side winning the game.
As well as Leinster’s strength at the back, Exeter made errors that cost them any chance of getting back into the game. In this image, they are looking to transfer the ball out to the nearside wing, with Devoto seeing the gap and making the pass. Substitute back Ian Whitten and lock Jonny Hill are both outside him, making similar runs forward, giving Devoto the passing options he needs. However, he mistimes the pass, putting it directly out of play. This was only one example of their errors, but they were a constant feature of Exeter’s game once they felt the pressure on them. This lack of quality at key moments was what ultimately hindered their hopes of staying in the Champions Cup this season.
Overall, Exeter had some good tactical ideas, which gave them a good early lead and control of the game, but they had no answer once Leinster had gotten into their flow and started dictating the play. We have said many times this season that Exeter are not playing at their usual high level, and this game highlighted this, as they struggled at times when, last year, they would have found a way through.
Leinster may have won the game, but they started really poorly, making errors that we don’t usually expect them to make.
Here, their defence is positioned in close proximity to Exeter Chiefs’ players, which initially looks like a good setup to have. However, it forced Exeter to play quick passes, which is one of their strengths, so, in actual fact, Leinster were playing into their hosts’ hands with this setup. The Dublin side also risked overstretching when pressing forwards, as has happened in this image. Two Leinster players have got out of position, losing line discipline, which has presented Ollie Devoto, in the white circle, with a wide gap to get the ball through. Devoto delays his pass, showing the awareness and threat Exeter have when given these spaces, and looks to set up winger Olly Woodburn and then Stuart Hogg on the wing to go over. Whilst nothing came from this particular attack, it was something Leinster needed to be aware of.
When in possession, Leinster looked to emulate Exeter’s quick play in their own attempts to find spaces. However, their passing was not as crisp as their hosts’ was, with the ball hitting the ground here from scrum-half Luke McGrath’s pass infield. This slowed the play down, allowing Exeter to continually push them back, with flanker Dave Ewers leading the charges forward and making big tackles on the Leinster players, as he always does.
As a result of this, Leinster couldn’t find a way through, almost overplaying at times because of how hard they were trying. Loose passes like this one, playing one pass too many and failing to find the intended targets were all features of their early play, and were a key reason why Exeter dominated them at this point.
The second half started in much the same way as the first, with Leinster leaving spaces open for Exeter to attack, and we see here how another gap has appeared in their line. Again, Exeter have delayed their pass, with the outside Leinster players moving ahead of their teammates, exactly as they did in the first half. Exeter captain and fly-half Joe Simmonds has the ball, in the white circle, sending O’Flaherty through, and they gain a lot of ground from his run. Again, nothing comes of this, as O’Flaherty was eventually brought down well by Leinster flanker Rhys Ruddock, but this showed again how much power and threat Exeter had in these situations, and why Leinster needed to stop these gaps opening up.
Leinster’s attacking positives
Leinster did also have plenty of positives in the game, which enabled them to take victory at the end of 80 minutes.
Once they had got themselves into the game in the first half, their play was more creative and they carried more of a threat. One thing that we noticed throughout the game was that full-back Hugo Keenan played in a very attacking role, almost operating as an extra wide attacker for the team. Wingers James Lowe and Jordan Larmour both benefitted from having Keenan alongside them, as he added an extra link between the midfield and the wings, making it easier for Leinster to create try-scoring chances and expose the gaps Exeter Chiefs left open in the wide channels.
This has been Exeter’s main weakness this season, and is a big reason they have been opened up so often by opposing attackers. This particular probe from Leinster led to the Irish side’s first try of the game, with Keenan setting up Lowe to get the ball over the line. It had taken a while, but this was the moment when Leinster finally found some attacking momentum going, with things clicking together and them taking control of the game.
We have already mentioned how Leinster kicked forward as often as they could, keeping Exeter as far back as possible, but they were also outstanding at getting to the breakdown quickly, winning plenty of penalties and dominating the game on the ground, which also helped push Exeter backwards.
To keep control of the game, they looked to switch their tactics around a lot. This image shows one attack after a lineout has been won. Number 8 Jack Conan, in the blue circle, has run through on the inside, before setting up hooker Ronan Kelleher, in the red circle. This all happened very quickly, with Leinster looking to use gaps when they were available. Again, this comes down to the away side’s awareness of what was around them, using anything they could to keep Exeter on the back foot and win the game.
Leinster also mixed up their passing, playing long passes as well as quick, short ones. This happened a lot in Exeter’s 22m area, as they looked to move the ball in this part of the pitch in the same way that Exeter did in the first half. This helped them to find spaces before Exeter could get across to block them off, giving them a greater chance of scoring. Here, Ross Byrne, who came on at fly-half to replace captain Johnny Sexton, who failed a first half head injury assessment, has seen where the space is and passed out to Larmour, in the red circle.
The length of the pass is shown by the blue arrow, and we can see how it takes out a lot of Exeter defenders and gives Larmour a greater chance of scoring before any defenders can tackle him. Joe Simmonds almost got there to force him out of play, but the try was still scored, so the long pass tactic worked.
Focusing on Byrne’s individual performance briefly, he was at the centre of a lot of their good attacking play, and his calmness in the middle of the pitch, as well as his ability to switch Leinster’s tactics to create more opportunities after his arrival, were all key reasons for Leinster’s eventual win.
In conclusion, this was a really interesting game to watch, with plenty for both sides to be happy about and to work on. However, Leinster’s ability to adapt in the game, coming up with new ideas to break Exeter Chiefs down, was what gave them the edge. Exeter came undone because of the same reasons they have struggled throughout this season, with Leinster taking advantage of the spaces they left open. We have shown in this analysis how the home side started well, taking advantage of Leinster’s mistakes, but, as soon as Leinster got into the game, Exeter seemingly had no answer, and struggled to hold them back.
Leinster’s opponents in the semi-finals will be La Rochelle, who defeated Sale Sharks on Saturday in their quarter-final, and who are coached by former Ireland fly-half Ronan O’Gara. Meanwhile, the defeats for Sale and Exeter means that England has no representation in the semi-finals, with the other last four tie being between French teams Toulouse and Bordeaux-Begles.