The Gallagher Premiership this season has thrown up a number of surprises, such as the rise of Northampton Saints, Bath Rugby and Bristol Bears to become top four contenders. However, one of the more surprising things has been the way Gloucester Rugby have fallen this season, compared to the last few when they have been solid top four contenders. In this game at Kingsholm, they hosted league giants Exeter Chiefs, who sat top of the table at that point in the season. This tactical analysis of the match will look at both sides’ positives and negatives, as well as looking at how their tactics affected the game.
Gloucester’s overall play
Firstly, we will look at how Gloucester shot themselves in the foot with some of their play.
Fly-half Danny Cipriani has long been Gloucester’s talisman and most creative player, following his move to the Cherry and Whites from Wasps in 2018. However, this season, it is noticeable that his loss in form has coincided with Gloucester’s decline this season. The image above shows you the sort of thing that has been happening to them, which is why they are struggling.
In the image, Cipriani has passed the ball to his teammate, as the red arrow shows, but the ball bounces before reaching its destination, and that is all it takes for what would have been a crucial move to lose momentum. You can see how the space is on the far side of the pitch, but because this pass bounces and is behind the player looking to take control of it, the move breaks down and Exeter swamp forwards.
This was not the only time that Gloucester’s handling and passing let them down, as it was a regular feature throughout the match. Unfortunately, this meant that they were always going to struggle against a Chiefs side who were happy to wait for their opportunities to come along, and not force a turnover in possession when they didn’t need to.
However, there were positives to Gloucester’s game, which are shown below.
Here, in both images, you can see how Gloucester have the ball after it has been taken to ground, and are looking to pass it and continue the phases. However, rather than centre Billy Twelvetrees receiving the ball where he is, and then carrying it forward, he moves first, so that the pass is virtually sideways, but still behind enough to be legal. This is a very clever tactic from Gloucester, because it means that they have the initiative in this phase.
To explain this to those that are perhaps confused, if Twelvetrees is passed the ball backwards, and doesn’t move forwards towards it, then by the time that he has controlled the ball, Exeter will be upon him. However, because he has taken the ball whilst moving forwards, he almost catches the Exeter defensive line by surprise, and takes time away from them instead. That’s what this very small bit of analysis is actually showing us.
Before we move on to Exeter Chiefs’ play, we will look at their full-back, Scotland captain Stuart Hogg.
The first point to make about his play is that he is one of the best and most attacking full-backs in world rugby. Despite playing at the back, he is constantly found as one of the players furthest forward, for club and country. In the below image, you can see one such example of him moving from defence to attack in the early stages of this game.
You can see from the time of the match that it has taken him just nine seconds to kick the ball forwards from the usual full-back position, and he has then become the Exeter player furthest forward. Some teams may only have 14 attacking players, as their full-backs stray forward no further than the halfway line, in case the opponents launch a counter-attack or clear the ball from their own half. However, with Hogg in the team, Exeter have 15 attacking players, giving them an extra threat.
An example of Hogg playing in the attack is shown below.
Here, Hogg has advanced forwards to be the inside player in the attack, forming the bridge for his team to move the ball to the wing, where the space is. Without Hogg being here, it is likely that Gloucester would have been able to make an interception on any attempted pass.
This image shows us how much ground Hogg covers when he makes his runs. You can see very clearly how he has seen where the gap is in the Gloucester defence (which is a weakness of the Cherry and Whites), and this is why he is such a threat.
However, whilst this doesn’t come to anything, if we have a look at the try scored below by Hogg, we see how his attacking style of play works even more.
The first image comes directly after Hogg has passed the ball to Exeter’s Number 8 Sam Simmonds, and he has then moved beyond the Gloucester defence, which is marked by the red line. Therefore, at this stage, he has free reign in the Gloucester half. The gap he will initially be aiming for is marked by the yellow line, although when this gets smaller, he breezes past the defenders on the wing.
The second image, despite being a little unclear, shows you how Simmonds managed to make his way through that first Gloucester line, marked red in the first image, and it’s because the gaps between the individual Gloucester players are so big. Ultimately, this shows us just how much impact he has, and how much of a threat he carries.
Exeter Chief’s defensive tactics
Finally in this match analysis, we will look at how Exeter Chiefs set up defensively during the match.
Firstly, we can see below an interesting strategy they used.
What we can see is that the Chiefs have moved their defensive line so that it is diagonal in formation, and the black line shows us how this looks. What Exeter are doing is matching Gloucester’s line, which is naturally diagonal as they are in possession. Exeter are taking time away from Gloucester, which is key in this scenario. They are also being proactive, because they aren’t standing back and waiting for Gloucester to hit their players and go to ground; they are not giving them the chance to make that decision.
In this example, we see something a little different, but still an effective way of Exeter defending. In the area we have marked with the square, it is a case of four against two in the Chiefs’ favour. The space is behind those four Chiefs players, as shown by the circle. However, Gloucester can’t kick and “up and under” into this area, in order to run through the Exeter line and catch it, because there are other Exeter players who can move to pick it up before the Gloucester players would get there, as the purple arrows show, and Gloucester would therefore lose possession of the ball.
These were two different examples of tactics that Exeter used to defend against Gloucester, but when you couple that to their attack, as we have already seen, it seemed inevitable that Exeter would come away from Kingsholm with a win, but now we have seen why that was.
To conclude, we have seen how this match played out, with home side Gloucester coming into the game in disappointing form, whereas Exeter looked to add another win to their already impressive season. Given that Saracens have already been relegated, it seems likely that the Chiefs will be champions this season. However, as far as Gloucester are concerned, it looks like it may be a season without a play-off place as a reward, and they will need to work out how to improve on things when the season restarts in August.