The second semi-final in the play-offs sees title favourites Exeter Chiefs host Bath at Sandy Park. In this preview, we will look at the key battles and matchups in their confirmed lineups, using statistics to see what tactics each side could use. Exeter have been the side to beat this season, and this has especially been the case since Saracens fell to the bottom of the table and were relegated to the Championship. Bath, meanwhile, have been a side that have improved in every game, almost under the radar, with attention on other teams like Bristol Bears and Wasps. However, despite drawing against Sarries last weekend, having been leading in the game, they will know that, out of the four teams in the play-offs, they are the clear underdogs.
This season’s meetings
Before we look at the lineups and key statistics, let’s look at how both teams fared in their earlier meetings this season. The first game saw Bath beat Exeter Chiefs at the Rec on the second weekend of the season, with the game ending 13-10 to the home side. However, when they met again in March, the Chiefs came through relatively comfortably, winning 57-20. What this shows is that there are clear defensive issues that Bath have exploited previously, as taking a combined 33 points off Exeter is not something a lot of teams can do. This will give them hope going into this game.
If we look at their lineups, we can see how both teams have named a strong squad. Exeter Chiefs, who have rested their first-choice players in Premiership matches since their place in the play-offs was confirmed, have the likes of Scotland captain Stuart Hogg, centre Henry Slade, hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, and back row forward Sam Simmonds all back in the team, and have quality and strength everywhere. Having been rested, we can expect that their entire starting XV will be ready and raring to go, and will give Bath something to think about.
Bath, meanwhile, start with the majority of players who played against Saracens last weekend, with one notable change coming at the back, where Josh Matavesi swaps places with Cameron Redpath at centre. England winger Joe Cokanasiga also starts, having spent the majority of the season on the sidelines injured, and he and Ruaridh McConnochie will be expected to provide a threat out wide to Exeter’s defence. The back row combination of Tom Ellis, England’s Sam Underhill and Wales international Taulupe Faletau will also be an area to watch, as they could be the difference between a win and a loss.
The first significant battle to pick out in this analysis is the wingers, who are all players capable of hurting opposing defences and scoring tries. The pie chart below shows the number of tries that all four of them have scored this season.
Joe Cokanasiga is missing, because he has only made two appearances this season, and hasn’t scored in either of them. However, Ruaridh McConnochie, on the other wing for Bath, has scored the most of the four players, with nine tries to his name so far, and he has looked a threat every time he makes a run forwards. Olly Woodburn and Tom O’Flaherty have scored two and five respectively, a combined total less than McConnochie. Therefore, whilst Exeter Chiefs will have a better balance, as the statistics show, Bath have the biggest try threat when it comes to the wingers.
The other thing that wingers need to do is to beat defenders, and this is what this next chart shows. We can see that the player who has beaten the most defenders is Tom O’Flaherty, with 57, and this is likely to be because he makes more runs. We also know that he likes to move from the wing into central positions in search of the ball when he isn’t being found on the wings, which is another reason for him possibly beating more defenders. However, what is interesting is that Ruaridh McConnochie is next, with 36, which is no doubt a reason that he is able to score so many tries.
Therefore, what we can see from these charts is that Bath have the greater try threat, but Exeter will beat more defenders. As for what this shows us in terms of the game, it is fairly even, because McConnochie can be expected to be on the scoresheet, but the Chiefs, and O’Flaherty in particular, will create opportunities by beating defenders and breaking through lines.
The next matchup to look at is the hookers. Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tom Dunn have arguably been the best players in their position this season, and both are capable of making metres and carrying the ball forward, as we can see in the chart below.
We can see how both players are close in the number of metres they have made, with 165 for Cowan-Dickie and 212 for Dunn, which shows that Bath can be expected to open up more spaces centrally in Exeter Chiefs’ defence. This is supported by the fact that Dunn has had 150 carries this season, compared to Cowan-Dickie’s 64, so the only observation to make here is that Dunn is likely to be more involved in his team’s play, having more of the ball, but this is perhaps, if we link back to the previous section, because Exeter prefer to get the ball to their wingers, who then make the metres for the team.
The interesting thing about both Cowan-Dickie and Dunn this season is that they have both proven to be try threats, particularly from rolling mauls. It has often been the case that, when Bath and Exeter score a try in this way, their hookers have been the players at the bottom with the ball on the line. This is not a rare occurrence either, as the pie chart above shows. Dunn has scored more, with six, which is not surprising, given what we have said previously about Dunn having more of the ball, but Cowan-Dickie is only one behind him, with five to his name so far.
Essentially, what we can see from this section is that the front row will be a key battleground for both teams, and the game could be won or lost by a rolling maul and subsequent try scored by Dunn or Cowan-Dickie.
The final section looks at the back row of the scrum, with this looking like another area where the game could be won or lost. On initial looks, Exeter Chiefs have the stronger trio, but Bath’s back row have also shown this season that they can stop opposing attacks and make tackles at key times, so this is something that Exeter will need to be aware of.
Here, we can see the number of tackles made by each of the six starting back row players (blue bars and the numbers on the left of the chart), as well as their tackle success rates (orange line and the numbers on the right of the chart). Immediately, we can see that Sam Simmonds has made the most tackles out of all of them, with 198 to his name so far. The interesting thing is that the next two are his teammates; Dave Ewers, who has 162, and Jacques Vermeulen, who has 153. This suggests that they will be the more dominant in this area, which could be enough to beat Bath.
However, before we can make that conclusion, we need to look at the tackle success rate of all six players, and this is where Bath have more luck. Simmonds still has the highest success rate, with 95%, but Bath’s highest tackle success rate comes from Tom Ellis, who has a 94% success rate, so only just behind. The lowest, perhaps surprisingly, is Sam Underhill, but he still has a success rate of 89%. It just shows that, when it comes to success, both Bath and Exeter are more matched in this area of the team. However, because Exeter make more tackles, they will have the edge.
The last point that we will look at is the other thing associated with back rows, which is turnover wins. In this chart, we can see how many turnovers each player has won, and how many they have conceded. The best in this area are Jacques Vermeulen and Tom Ellis, who are the only two to have conceded less turnovers than they have won. Therefore, turnovers are not the best area for these six players, but both teams have someone who is able to take the ball when it does hit the ground, which is important. However, it doesn’t look like turnovers will be the deciding factor in the game’s result.
In conclusion, we can see how tactics will come into this game a lot. This preview has shown how both teams will need to use the wings to get forward, especially Bath, as this is where they are strong, but the front and back rows of the scrums will need to be on top form, as, with both relatively evenly matched when their statistics are compared, one mistake could hand the other team the space and points they need to win the game.