What has happened to Exeter Chiefs? Why Rob Baxter's side have started season sluggishly

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What has happened to Exeter Chiefs? Why Rob Baxter's side have started season sluggishly - GETTY IMAGES
What has happened to Exeter Chiefs? Why Rob Baxter's side have started season sluggishly - GETTY IMAGES

Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter made a fair point this week. "It's never a huge drama or a crisis when you lose a game after winning three. That's ridiculous to talk like that."

That being said, Exeter's defeat to London Irish last weekend raised a few eyebrows. It's uncommon for Exeter to ship five tries anywhere, let alone at home, and Saturday's result leaves the Chiefs sitting outside the top four.

So, while it's too early, as Baxter says, to be thinking about a crisis with Exeter only one win outside the top four, given the high standards they have set in recent years it's worth delving into why their start has been a little off. Exeter previously had not lost three of their opening six matches since the 2016/17 season.

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Injuries

This affects every club, of course, but that combination of injured players and rested internationals has undoubtedly hit Exeter hard, particularly in the second and back rows where the club's depth has been tested.

Exeter have missed the ballast of Jannes Kirsten and Jacques Vermeulen on the flanks, doing the dirty week to free up Sam Simmonds at No 8. Dave Ewers, similarly powerful, was absent against London Irish last weekend too. 

Jonny Gray is yet to play this season after undergoing shoulder surgery, while hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie is out for the next two months.

Factor in that Exeter are about to lose Jonny Hill, Sam Simmonds, Sam Skinner (who played at six against Irish) and also Christ Tshiunza, the teenager called up by Wales, and even for a club with as much depth in their pack as Exeter, resources are set to be tested. 

Both Tshiunza and Rus Tuima are highly promising players, and both will be called into action off the bench at Kingsholm.

Jonny Gray is among Exeter's lengthy list of absentees - GETTY IMAGES
Jonny Gray is among Exeter's lengthy list of absentees - GETTY IMAGES

"Nothing's improved," Baxter said with half a laugh when asked about the injury situation at the club. "We haven't got any more players available and have a few less available [after playing London Irish]. 

"That's the nature of the beast. This stage of the season, it's about getting your head down and collecting points. I'm confident we'll come strong through the season."

Jack Nowell's recent return should at least provide Exeter with cover at full-back while Stuart Hogg is away with Scotland, although Baxter may view the next few weeks as an opportunity to get more minutes under Josh Hodge's belt.

One of the more interesting selection calls so far has been fly-half Joe Simmonds, who was benched in favour of in-form Harvey Skinner for the win over Wasps and is back there against Gloucester. 

Simmonds started against Irish, making his 100th Exeter appearance, but his movement in and out of the starting XV is worth monitoring.

Shift in style

When the new law trial regarding goal-line dropouts was introduced this season, Exeter were one of the first teams that sprung to mind. No team in Europe has been better over the last few years at backing up opponents on to their own try line and then suffocating them with scrum after scrum, maul after maul, producing yellow cards and tries.

Exeter are still crashing over from short-range, take Will Witty against Irish and Sam Simmonds against Wasps (from a five-metre scrum), but that threat has been reduced to an extent by the law tweak.

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So far Exeter are scoring fewer tries on average compared to last season, 3.7 to 4.3 in 2020/21, but their style of play has notably shifted, putting together some excellent attacking tries against Wasps finished by Facundo Cordero and Henry Slade, and against Irish through Nowell.

That's reflected in Exeter making more metres on average per game (444 up from 426), beating more defenders (26.5 compared to 22.9) and notably far more passes (188, whereas last season's average was 148). 

Bedding in any strategic shifts takes time, and perhaps we're seeing a few growing pains. Exeter are conceding an unmanageable 16 turnovers per game this season, up by three on the previous campaign, and missing an average 22 tackles.

Accuracy

In a welcomingly detailed answer during this week's press conference, Baxter outlined where things went wrong last weekend.

"London Irish found momentum very easily didn't they, one-off ball-carriers running hard. We didn't find that kind of momentum, giving up momentum makes you liable to conceding penalties. 

"A lack of accuracy on the floor when we carried meant that we were open to the odd turnover on the floor. That aligned with a slow reaction with clearouts."

Summing up, Baxter noted that "quite an average performance" had stemmed from both their intensity and "fundamentals" being off. 

The momentum and pressure which Exeter created during the second half at Wasps in particular was missing against the Exiles. Restoring both of those will be a priority on Friday against a Gloucester side who haven't lost in four matches.

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