The opening weekend of the English Premiership provided us with plenty of interesting fixtures, but one that caught the eye was Exeter Chiefs’ trip to Welford Road, home to a Leicester Tigers side who showed signs of revival last season. Exeter, last season’s beaten finalists, did not play at their usual high standards last season, so would have been hoping to begin in better form this campaign.
However, as this tactical analysis will explain, they struggled to get into the game early on, making errors that prevented them building any momentum in attack, although there were plenty of positives for them to build on too. This analysis will also look at Leicester’s performance, focusing on the tactics that they have developed over the summer and seeing why these helped them to win on the opening weekend.
Leicester Tigers opted not to name any of their new signings in their starting XV, instead choosing a side who played together numerous times last season. England loosehead prop Ellis Genge captained the side for the first time, after succeeding long-serving hooker Tom Youngs in the role, whilst Nic Dolly started only his second game for the Tigers at hooker, with Julian Montoya, Charlie Clare and Youngs all absent. Academy graduates Tommy Reffell and George Martin started as the flankers, with new vice-captain Hanro Liebenberg at Number 8. Fiji winger Nemani Nadolo also started, whilst another academy graduate, Freddie Steward, one of Leicester’s key players last season, was at full-back.
Exeter Chiefs, meanwhile, rested their British and Irish Lions players, meaning that the likes of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds and Stuart Hogg all missed out. As a result, Jack Innard was given a start at hooker, whilst Will Witty and Sean Lonsdale partnered each other in the second row, and promising back rower Rus Tuima was named at Number 8. There were also starts for England winger Jack Nowell after injury and young full-back Josh Hodge, whilst fly-half Joe Simmonds once again skippered the team from the middle of the field.
Leicester Tigers’ tactical play
Last season, Leicester Tigers made huge strides under former England coach Steve Borthwick, and looked more confident in their general play, eventually finishing in the Champions Cup places. This campaign, they will be looking to go one step further, potentially knocking on the door of the play-offs, and the performance they put on in this match will give them hope of achieving that aim.
Leicester’s attack last season was good, but it was their defence that let them down at times. However, with rugby league legend Kevin Sinfield now on-board as their defence coach, this part of their game looked much improved. In this image, Exeter Chiefs flanker Don Armand is trying to break through their line, but is having difficulty doing so, with the combination of Nic Dolly and George Martin keeping him back, and this teamwork was something we didn’t see as much last season.
The home side were also getting up to the ball quicker, which meant that Exeter never had time to plan their next move. On this occasion, Exeter won the penalty anyway, with Martin not rolling away after Armand had hit the ground, but this was still a good indication of the difference that Sinfield has made to Leicester’s defence since his arrival.
When attacking, Leicester had more patience in possession. Here, England fly-half George Ford has delayed his pass out towards the wing, despite two players being ready to receive the ball. This allows lock Harry Wells, in the yellow circle, to run in and collect the short offload at speed, with his momentum carrying him towards the Exeter line, and this was yet more clever play from the home side, and is something else we can expect to see a lot from them this season.
This tactic was designed to draw the Exeter players out of position, and this image shows how it was used to great effect when creating Leicester’s first try of the game. Again, Ford is waiting with the ball, forcing Sean Lonsdale, in the red circle, to come towards him. As the yellow lines show, this leaves Exeter winger Tom O’Flaherty in a 2-v-1 situation against Freddie Steward, in the yellow circle, and Dolly. Once Lonsdale has committed to tackling him, Ford passes to Steward, who then goes over to score in the space.
This looks easy to execute, but it came after eight phases of dominant possession by the Tigers, which had dragged the Exeter players from side to side, creating this numerical overload. This is clearly a tactic Leicester devised ahead of this season, looking to ask more questions of the opposing defenders.
One key strength in Leicester’s attacking play last season was rolling mauls. Argentina hooker Julian Montoya and former captain Tom Youngs both scored tries in the last campaign from these situations, and Nic Dolly, in the green circle here, also benefitted from them, with this particular maul leading to the hooker’s first try of the game. Many teams last season found it hard to stop Leicester once they had got one of their forward drives going, and what made it even more impressive here was that Leicester were one player down, with Wells in the sin bin. Whilst this isn’t a new tactic, it is something that we can expect to see a lot of in the Tigers’ performances this season.
Exeter Chiefs’ positives
Exeter Chiefs may have lost the game, but there were positives that they can take from it.
It took a while for the Chiefs to get into the game, and this image shows their first meaningful bit of play, with Rus Tuima jumping to catch a low lineout throw by Jack Innard. This led to Exeter’s first points of the game, with Armand scoring a try from close range, but it was their quick-thinking and ability to change their approach that helped them here. Normally, they would have started the game better, but they weren’t at full strength, with those that featured in South Africa this summer left out, as well as the injured trio of Jonny Gray, Jacques Vermeulen and Dave Ewers. Whilst this led to their disjointed performance, their ability to force their way through indicates their willingness to keep pushing, and Armand’s try was their reward for that.
In the second half, their performance was much improved, and they began to cause Leicester more problems. One was at the scrum, with the home side having a few issues hooking the ball backwards, and Exeter were able to dominate these set-pieces as a result, even when it wasn’t their put-in. Here, the ball is stuck underneath the front row, and Exeter have taken advantage of this, pushing forwards and winning the penalty. This was the second time that this had happened, and it gave the visitors more confidence and allowed them to play with an increased level of threat.
England centre Henry Slade did not have a good first half, but he looked much more like himself after half-time, with better lines and ball control making him more dangerous, and Exeter as a result asked more questions of the home side after half-time. Here, Slade is waiting to receive the ball from substitute scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, before running at the gap between Dolly and centre Dan Kelly, with Leicester constantly having to work hard to protect their try area. Slade’s kicking was also much better, and he continually punished Leicester for giving away penalties in dangerous areas.
Another thing Exeter did more of in the second half was punching holes in Leicester’s defensive line. We have already mentioned how they struggled with this in the first half, but their quicker passing and increased confidence meant that they found more gaps, with Slade forcing his way through here after receiving the quick reverse pass from replacement fly-half Harvey Skinner. As this image shows, he manages to get behind the line here, giving his team a chance of launching a counter-attack, but Leicester’s new defensive strength prevents this happening, as Slade’s offload is knocked forwards by Hidalgo-Clyne. Whilst this attempt to break Leicester down didn’t lead to anything, it encouraged Exeter to keep pushing.
Exeter can also be encouraged about the performance of Josh Hodge at full-back. He impressed in defence and attack, and showed that he can be a key player for the Chiefs this season. Scotland captain Stuart Hogg will no doubt be first-choice when he does come back into contention, but he will be absent during the Six Nations campaign after Christmas, meaning Exeter will need someone to step in and fill the position; Hodge showed in this game that he can be a solid backup.
In this image, he has made a quick run down the wing, and, whilst he was eventually tackled by Leicester centre Matt Scott, he gained a lot of ground for his team. The modern full-back needs to get up the pitch and lead attacks, just as Hogg does, almost operating as a third winger, and Hodge has those qualities.
Exeter Chiefs’ negatives
However, whilst Exeter Chiefs have good points to reflect on ahead of their next game, they also have improvements to make.
The main issue was their lack of quality with the ball. We mentioned how Henry Slade didn’t have his best 45 minutes before half-time, and this image shows one of his loose passes, which has forced Jack Nowell to backtrack in order to collect the ball. Exeter as a result have lost their momentum, slowing down their play. Given the space available to them, they would have been able to break through Leicester Tigers, with only Freddie Steward in that area. Instead, they have allowed Leicester to do what they do best; get up and close the ball down. Therefore, Exeter need to be better with the ball in these situations.
We have already analysed Leicester’s clever possessional play, but let’s look at it from Exeter’s point of view.
Here, Tommy Reffell has the ball, with Tom O’Flaherty being drawn towards him. On this occasion, Exeter’s midfield had already narrowed up, forcing O’Flaherty to come inside and leave the wide channel open. What the Chiefs should have done was to maintain their positions, covering all spaces and making it harder for Leicester to break through them. However, lock Calum Green, Steward and Hanro Liebenberg have all been allowed to get behind the Chiefs here, with a clever kick by Steward setting up their second try of the game, finished by Scott. Exeter like to play with a high defensive line, squeezing their opponents, but it didn’t work against Leicester’s quick passing tactics, so this is another thing they will need to look at in training this week.
We have already mentioned how Josh Hodge was making dangerous runs up the field to create opportunities for the visitors, but they still conceded a few easy penalties. A couple of passes after this, replacement lock Ryan McCauley, who joined this summer from Perth-based Western Force, went off his feet in an attempt to collect the ball, allowing Leicester to clear their lines from the resulting penalty. Ultimately, Exeter were better in the second half, but it was moments like this that stopped them converting their chances into vital points.
In conclusion, this analysis has shown how Leicester Tigers were robust defensively, and how Exeter Chiefs found it difficult to get into the game in the early stages. However, once the away side had found their confidence, they looked more like themselves, and played better in the second half as a result. Leicester will be delighted with their win, but head coach Steve Borthwick warned afterwards that they need to be realistic, in that this was an Exeter team missing a lot of key players. The Tigers also need to watch their penalty count, as this was one area that let them down in this game, allowing Exeter to push them back towards their try line multiple times in the second half.
Leicester Tigers travel to Kingsholm on Friday night, looking to make it back-to-back wins against a Gloucester side who lost their opening weekend game to Northampton Saints. Exeter Chiefs will be at home on Saturday, when they host Northampton at Sandy Park.