The 2019/2020 Premiership final arrived, much later than planned, with Exeter Chiefs and Wasps facing off against each other at Twickenham Stadium. It wasn’t perhaps the high-scoring game that we were all hoping for, mainly down to the weather conditions, but there were still some things that happened in the game that are worth discussing. In this tactical analysis of the final, we will look at the strengths and weaknesses of the tactics used by both Exeter and Wasps, as well as making a point on just why the weather can be so influential in a game of rugby.
Exeter Chiefs Wasps
15. S. Hogg 15. M. Minozzi
14. J. Nowell 14. Z. Kibirige
13. H. Slade 13. J. De Jongh
12. O. Devoto 12. J. Gopperth
11. O. Woodburn 11. J. Bassett
10. J. Simmonds (c) 10. J. Umaga
9. J. Maunder 9. D. Robson
- A. Hepburn 1. T. West
- L. Cowan-Dickie 2. T. Taylor
- H. Williams 3. J. Toomaga-Allen
- S. Skinner 4. J. Launchbury (c)
- J. Hill 5. W. Rowlands
- D. Ewers 6. J. Willis
- J. Kirsten 7. T. Young
- S. Simmonds 8. T. Willis
Wasps’ central attacking threat
We will start by looking at Wasps’ game. The first thing to mention is how they looked to penetrate Exeter’s defensive line by hitting them at speed. We can see in the below image one example of how they did this in the first half.
This example is actually when they scored their first try, with fly-half Jacob Umaga, likely to pick up his first England cap this weekend against Italy, going over to get Wasps on the board. We can see how Exeter Chiefs have a relatively well-organised defensive line, but Wasps do several things that open up a little bit of space for Umaga to run through. Scrum-half Dan Robson, in the yellow circle, has the ball, having picked it up at from the breakdown, but instead of immediately passing it, he makes a small run towards the Exeter defence. As well as this, winger Zach Kibirige, in the blue circle, also runs towards that spot, as the blue arrow shows.
This brings Exeter lock Jonny Hill, who is to the left of where Robson and Kibirige run to in the image, towards the breakdown a little more. Therefore, when Robson offloads the ball, indicated by the red arrow, to Umaga, whose run is shown by the yellow arrow, he can then run through with a little more space than he would have had. Umaga managed to get through relatively easily and go under the posts to score, but we can see how little subtle movements really can make the difference, as they did here. However, Umaga’s run at pace to meet the ball also helped, because that meant Exeter couldn’t hold onto him in their attempts to tackle him.
In the second half, we can see another example of this running at speed tactic. This time, it is substitute Lima Sopoaga, in the yellow circle, making it. He normally plays at fly-half, but came on at full-back in place of Italy international Matteo Minozzi early in the second half of this game. He had an immediate impact, and was more involved in the game than Minozzi had managed to be in the first half. Sopoaga here receives the ball from Umaga, in the yellow square, and then he takes the ball into the tackle at speed. Whilst this time it didn’t lead to a breakthrough, it helped to force Exeter back a little bit. It’s a bit like hitting a brick wall; if you keep pushing enough times, eventually it will give way, and that’s why this tactic of running into the line at speed is used so often on a rugby field. It also here helped to keep Exeter at bay, stopping them from moving towards the Wasps try line.
Those were the strengths of Wasps’ game, but the one thing that let them down was decision-making. Here, they had won a penalty, but, instead of taking three points from a kick through the posts, they opted to kick it out of play for a lineout, which is where this image picks up. Wasps’ substitute hooker Gabriel Oghre has looked to find his teammates with the throw, but Wasps get it all wrong, and you can see how the ball goes straight to Exeter’s Scotland lock Jonny Gray. Given how late this was in the game, and how Wasps needed points to take the game to at least half-time, they needed to back themselves here, and they did, but then they needed to get the lineout execution perfect, and they didn’t.
Once the ball came down, Exeter won a succession of penalties for things like Wasps bringing down mauls illegally, and the Chiefs consistently put the ball out for lineouts, and pushed Wasps further back towards their own try line. Therefore, this mistake meant that Wasps’ last chance to take the game to extra time or to steal it altogether was gone. Their confidence was, understandably, also gone after this error, and it was then a case of Exeter just waiting for the clock to go red, so they could put the ball out of play and celebrate their domestic and European double.
Exeter Chiefs’ first half
If we now look at Exeter Chiefs’ performance in the first half, we can see how they continually looked to play the ball out to the wings.
This was because Wasps kept leaving these areas undefended, all coming inside to try and close the gaps centrally. The yellow line on the far side of the pitch shows the space this opened up. Exeter saw this, and this image shows how they got their first try, through England centre Henry Slade. The ball is with winger Jack Nowell in the black circle, who is another England international, and he looks to play it out towards Slade, in the black square. By passing backwards, and not to the players alongside him, Nowell looks to give Slade as much room as possible to build up speed and break through Wasps’ defence, just as Wasps were doing to them. Wasps’ Number 8 Tom Willis, brother of new England player and Wasps’ teammate Jack, was caught out here on the outside, with Slade darting inside him to get to the try line. It is worth noting that Exeter had been looking for a gap centrally to break through beforehand, but had then seen the space outside and looked to use it, which, as mentioned, led to their first try.
Another example of Exeter using the wider space left open by Wasps is shown here. This time, captain and fly-half Joe Simmonds is in possession, but he doesn’t make the immediate pass. Instead, he runs forwards, whilst still keeping his body shape looking like he will pass. This puts doubt into the Wasps’ defenders’ minds, particularly Zach Kibirige’s, in the yellow circle. Like in the previous example, the winger has drifted inside, leaving the space open on the wing. Simmonds’ delayed pass means he can get into the space next to Kibirige, as shown by the black arrow, before then offloading to a teammate on the wing. Running forward to offer themselves as passing options are Scotland full-back and captain Stuart Hogg, and Jonny Hill, who has been called into the England camp this week following his excellent season for the Chiefs.
What this section has shown is how Exeter were able to take advantage of Wasps’ defensive problems on the wings, constantly using them to gain ground and create try-scoring opportunities.
Exeter Chiefs’ second half
In the second half, Wasps were more difficult to break down, and Exeter had to be patient with the ball. We can see in the images below how they had to take the ball into the tackle a lot of the time, and gradually push Wasps back with every phase of play. However, they also had to rely on their key players to do this.
In these two images, we can see two of the players they were most reliant on. The first image shows how Jack Nowell proved to be a handful for Wasps to deal with all afternoon. We have seen how he helped to make key passes to set up attacks for his team, but he was also able to drive into Wasps’ players, which is what the first image shows. By doing so, he is looking to gain a metre or so with each push. You can see how this is early in the second half, so Exeter are looking at this stage to gain the points that would take them further away from Wasps in the scoreline, beyond a converted try.
The second image shows how another of their players, centre Ollie Devoto, was also crucial in Exeter’s attempts to break through Wasps’ backline. Devoto started ahead of Ian Whitten at centre, because Whitten is a little more defensive in his play than Devoto is. Therefore, for tasks such as gaining ground like this, Devoto was the better option. The Chiefs were happy to keep pushing gradually in this way, especially as Wasps kept giving away penalties in these areas. One such offence came from this situation; Exeter’s substitute scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne has passed the ball to Devoto, who then makes a run between Jacob Umaga and Jimmy Gopperth, but is tackled by both Wasps players combined. Wasps flanker Jack Willis then comes in, but puts his hands into the ruck, thereby giving away the penalty, which was kicked through the posts by Joe Simmonds. With action at a premium, as the weather came in, these moments and little gains were crucial in helping to decide the outcome of this year’s Premiership final.
The weather conditions
The final point to make is how the weather affected this match.
If we look at this image, we can see how the ball has been kicked high into the air by Exeter Chiefs’ starting scrum-half Jack Maunder. Wasps’ full-back Matteo Minozzi is underneath it, looking to catch it. However, the wind means that the ball is blowing around a lot, and that makes it really difficult to get underneath and catch it cleanly. This is why teams often kick high when the wind is swirling around, because they want to test their opponents’ catching skills, and remember that, if the ball is dropped, it constitutes a knock-on.
If we add this to the pouring rain in this game, which made the ball increasingly slippy, then we can see why both teams looked to test each other in this way. Minozzi in this example dropped the ball from Maunder’s kick, but players on both teams were dropping them throughout the game. Therefore, we can see why kicking was such a crucial element in the match.
In conclusion, this Premiership final will not go down in memory as one of the great finals in Premiership history, but there were still little tactical points that were worth picking out and analysing. We have seen how Exeter Chiefs looked to take advantage of Wasps’ narrow defending, and how both sides looked to crash into the opposing defence to force gaps in them. We have also looked at how the weather played a big part in deciding the outcome of this game and the 2019/2020 season.
This season may now be over, but we don’t have long to wait for 2020/2021 to come around; there is only just under one month until it returns to our screens.