There is no doubting that this English Premiership season is no ordinary season. At the top of the league, Leicester Tigers have surprised many with their 100% winning record, but another abnormality is the slow start experienced by both Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears, both of whom were expected to be once again contending for the title. Whilst Exeter have since shown improvement as the campaign has progressed, Bristol have yet to find the confidence they displayed so much of in recent campaigns, and will be thankful that there is no relegation from the top flight this season. In short, both teams have experienced differing fortunes after their lethargic starts.
Given this, the meeting between the two at Sandy Park on Saturday provided us with a chance to look in closer detail at their performances, making some direct comparisons and finding explanations for why Exeter have coped better than Bristol with their early disappointment. As well as picking out the positives, this tactical analysis will also mention where both teams can still improve, as both have areas that they can continue to work on.
Passing is a key element of rugby, and not being accurate or quick enough with the ball can be a team’s undoing. With this in mind, Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears opt for different ways of moving the ball around, and this is the first area in which we will see why the Chiefs have been better in possession, asking more questions and posing a bigger threat.
The home side have been really good at making the ball do the work, and they are able to mix short and long passes well, depending on the situation. In this game, they generally played shorter passes, but used dummy runs to prevent Bristol from making many interception attempts, especially in the first half.
This image shows one example of this happening, with fly-half Joe Simmonds offloading to England winger Jack Nowell, whilst centre Henry Slade runs between them to draw the Bristol Bears players’ focus away from the ball. As a result, the Bears are unsure of whether to move forwards or hold their positions, and this confusion leads to mistakes and a lack of communication and organisation in their ranks.
In this case, Bristol winger Luke Morahan and full-back Charles Piutau do different things, with one staying still and the other dropping back, which leaves a gap open for Nowell to kick the ball through and give Scotland captain Stuart Hogg something to run onto. Once Hogg reaches the ball, he sets up winger Tom O’Flaherty to score the try, so this shows how the dummy runs are a big positive in Exeter’s play, and are a key reason for their upturn in form.
If we contrast that with Bristol’s passing, we can see how they didn’t display as much creativity as their opponents, instead passing down the line and being too predictable. In this case, centre Sam Bedlow is in the process of offloading to Henry Purdy, who had come on as an injury replacement for Piutau, but Slade reads the pass and gets up to put pressure on the former Gloucester back. Whilst the England international doesn’t win possession, he does succeed in applying pressure on Bristol and forcing them into a few loose passes, with Morahan’s pass to the impressive Fitz Harding a few seconds later going forwards.
Bristol also set up too narrowly, meaning that, like with Exeter, their passes were generally covering shorter distances. However, without the clever movements that the Chiefs were making, this meant that Exeter were able to get up to individual players early, ending attacks, and this is one difference between both teams. This is not to say that Bristol didn’t try to mix their play up and find ways to break through, but it was these small details that let them down.
Finding and using gaps
The second aspect of this game that needs exploring is how both Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears tried to find and exploit gaps in the other’s defensive line. They looked to run through each other as often as possible during the game, but neither was able to consistently turn those chances into points, so it is something that both can improve on.
The majority of clear breaks happened in the second half. We have already looked at how Exeter played grubber kicks into the spaces behind Bristol and tried to get their wide threats into the game as often as possible, and we know from O’Flaherty’s try that this tactic was working for them. This time, the roles are reversed, with full-back Hogg the one setting up the chance, kicking into the space and giving Nowell something to chase, but the ball unfortunately bounced out of play on this occasion before the winger could reach it. However, it was still a good tactical idea, and something that Bristol struggled to prevent happening, so it was clear that this was something Exeter had worked on beforehand as a way of using the entirety of the pitch to create try-scoring opportunities.
Bristol also looked to run through gaps when possible, although they didn’t manage to find as many as Exeter, with the break from Morahan in this image, between Slade and Joe Simmonds, arguably their first true chance to run at the Chiefs’ try line in clean air. However, the thing that let Bristol down here was that they didn’t get enough support up the pitch quickly enough, with Radradra the only option for Morahan to pass the ball to once he had gone to ground. Once Radradra needed a teammate, back rower Mitch Eadie was there to help him, but this was the extent of the support. As a result of these isolated attackers, Exeter were able to make tackles and get over the ball, with their teamwork winning them the penalty here.
As with the passing, Exeter were better at using gaps than Bristol, as they showed more urgency than their opponents did when running through these spaces. However, both teams will also be aware that they weren’t clinical enough, and need to turn more of these chances into points in order to get back to where they were beforehand.
We can also draw comparisons from their defensive performances, with each side selecting different ways to keep their opponents out. This was an area that was strong for both Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears at points in the game, so it is worth looking at the differences in their defensive tactics.
At this point in the match, Bristol Bears were asking a few more questions than they had been previously and showed more signs of finding a way through the Exeter Chiefs players, and the home side needed to be watertight in order to keep key players like Purdy, Radradra and England scrum-half Harry Randall in front of them.
Again, Bristol’s short passing benefitted Exeter, as they were able to close down individual players, knowing which would receive the ball next, and this image shows hooker Harry Thacker in possession, following a pass from Morahan. Replacement prop John Afoa, in the yellow circle, is the next in line, and this is what is meant by Bristol being too predictable and lacking creativity to create holes that they can penetrate. Exeter centre Ollie Devoto, lock Jonny Hill and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie all zeroed in on the tighthead here, preventing him from getting forwards, and this is one reason for Bristol’s general lack of attacking quality at the moment (the Leicester game aside).
However, this also demonstrates the immense defensive work that Exeter put in when on top of their game, which has been essential in them becoming harder to beat as the campaign has gone on.
Bristol’s defensive tactics are different, but can be just as effective when they work well. We know already that they get in their opponents’ faces and ensure that they have no space to move around in, and this image shows what happens when this is coupled with good timing and anticipation.
The reason that they were defensively stronger at this point, compared to in the first half, was because Exeter had lost some of their intensity and weren’t making as many dummy runs as before, so their overall quality was lacking. Here, when Joe Simmonds passes to flanker Dave Ewers, Purdy slips into the gap unnoticed and makes the interception, running the length of the field to score the visitors’ only try of the game, which was deserved at this point. Therefore, Bristol can take comfort from knowing that their defensive tactics do work, but not as often as is required.
To make one summary point about both teams’ defensive styles, Exeter have always prided themselves on a strong defence, and have been capable of keeping any team out in the past. This season, it has not been as robust as it can be, but they have still proven to be a force to be reckoned with. For Bristol, they have some good ideas, but need to now start to build on moments like this, as it will not only give them some much-needed confidence, but will also allow them to start getting more points on the board during matches.
Playing out from the back
The final aspect of the match where we can make a comparison between Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears is in the way they both looked to play out from the back. This was an area where both struggled at times, so it is another thing that both can work on during training.
Bristol’s issue was that they sometimes didn’t make the right decision with the ball, and this image is a prime example of that. Radradra has winger Ioan Lloyd open on the wing, in the yellow circle, but he instead opted to keep the ball and try to force his own way through the Exeter line. Normally, this would be a good thing to do, given Radradra’s strength and height, meaning it is difficult to bring him down. However, the player ahead of him was England centre Slade, who had a really good defensive game and was key in leading his team when they were out of possession.
The tackle on the Fiji international led to Bristol knocking the ball forward and giving Exeter possession in a dangerous area of the pitch, and this could have been avoided if the ball had been passed to Lloyd beforehand. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but this was one occasion where Bristol perhaps didn’t help themselves. We expect them to be better in these situations once they have their confidence back, but these are the moments that are presently costing them.
Exeter, meanwhile, did use the wings and make passes into those spaces, but their mistakes came through their lack of accuracy with the ball. Here, Slade has looked to find Hogg, but his pass goes behind the Scotland international and out of play, bringing an end to the Chiefs’ momentum and allowing Bristol to start their own attack. Despite a good overall game, Slade was guilty of making mistakes like this after the break, which meant that Exeter, like Bristol, were unable to make their chances count. They also need to be tidier with the ball, ensuring that they punish their opponents for leaving these gaps open for them to exploit.
In conclusion, this analysis has looked at the performances of both Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears in their recent English Premiership match, picking out four key areas of the game and seeing why Exeter are currently doing better than their title rivals of recent seasons. We have looked at different aspects of their defensive and attacking play, identifying where they are stronger and where they still need to improve.
The key point to take away is that Exeter’s tactical creativity is what has helped them to climb the table after their slow start, whereas Bristol have not yet developed that in the same way, which is why they are lacking in overall confidence. Therefore, going back to basics might be the best thing for the Bears to do, rebuilding from the ground and going back to what they are good at.