Inside Line: Exeter Chiefs head into Europe as Premiership leaders after honing added attacking dimension

Henry Slade streaks away from the Bath defence - Getty Images
Henry Slade streaks away from the Bath defence - Getty Images

Truly excellent teams are able to win in a variety of ways. Exeter Chiefs have now strung together six consecutive victories to begin the Gallagher Premiership campaign. They have needed to duck, dive, problem-solve and adapt – at least a little bit – during each one.

Friday night provided another example. They were without two influential forwards in Jonny Hill and Sam Simmonds. A fresh and fired-up Bath side disrupted their reliable lineout platform. Chiefs only took five of their 10 throws cleanly, ending the match with an uncharacteristically low share of 49 per cent share possession.

And yet Exeter still plundered a bonus-point triumph at The Rec. A fantastic scrum effort, led by loosehead prop Ben Moon, powered six of the nine penalties that Bath conceded. But a closer examination of two tries in particular can underline the attacking opportunism and dynamism that head coach Ali Hepher promised to hone over the summer.

Transition and cohesion

Two of Exeter’s tries, their third and their fourth, started with lineouts. The remaining three came from turnovers. In the 28th minute, scrum-half Stuart Townsend intercepted Freddie Burns’ pass and scampered 50 metres. Then, just before half-time, Don Armand capitalised on another transition situation.

We join the action as Burns throws a wide pass to Taulupe Faletau on the edge of Bath’s 22 not long after the hosts have secured the restart. Outside Dave Dennis and Armand, Jack Nowell and Gareth Steenson are on the edge of Exeter’s defensive line.

Faletau has Joe Cokanasiga outside him, so attempts to stand up Nowell and suck in Steenson to create an overlap:

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As it happens, Steenson makes a low tackle and Nowell blocks any offload, staying on his feet in the process. All of a sudden, Faletau is isolated. Both Nowell and Armand spy the ball and pounce to compete:

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Bath centre Jackson Willison lends his weight to the breakdown with Cokanasiga, preventing a jackal steal. But, even with three Bath players in the ruck compared to Exeter’s two, the ball is forced loose.

Steenson, the initial tackler, has retreated behind the offside line – just about – so can advance again as Bath scrum-half Max Green comes across:

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He dives off his feet to gather possession and both Nowell and Armand, who have freed themselves from the previous breakdown, follow up.

Nowell is lucky to get away with what looks like a neck-roll on Green but this perpetual motion – and the sheer pace recyclwhich the Exeter trio shift between defensive and attacking contributions – is precisely what generates scoring chances:

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As Dennis adopts the scrum-half role and finds Matt Kvesic, there are four Exeter players and four Bath players inside the white box. The Bath defenders close to the ruck have reacted to the turnover. Nathan Catt is one of them. He pushes up…

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…but a swivel-pass from Kvesic goes behind Sam Skinner and Harry Willliams to full-back Phil Dollman, opening up the far side of the field so Chiefs can take advantage of a glaring defensive dog-leg.

Exeter move the ball wide to the left via a sharp pass from Luke Cowan-Dickie:

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Santiago Cordero takes contact and, one phase after the turnover, Exeter’s forwards adopt something like a 1-3-3-1 formation – with Cowan-Dickie edging towards the far touchline, Armand staying close to the near touchline and two banks of three forwards holding the centre.

Townsend changes the flow of the play and feeds this first bank of three, identified by square markers. Skinner steps up at first-receiver, tipping a deft pass to Dave Ewers as Catt rushes up. Skinner and Harry Williams clear out:

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Kvesic, flanked by Moon and Dennis, is next to take the ball up. He can pull a pass back to Nowell or shift to Dennis but instead steps back against the grain to win a few more metres.

Note Steenson hanging further back, monitoring Bath full-back Burns. Zig-zagging phase-play might have been a ploy to drag Burns out of position. In the white circle, the first bank of forwards return to their feet:

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Sure enough, Townsend switches and arcs towards the far touchline to use the square pod, bypassing Skinner and feeding Ewers. Williams is in support again.

Meanwhile, Kvesic gets up. Watch two Bath defenders, Green and Catt, who has tackled Kvesic seconds previously:

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Townsend changes direction once more and sprints to the outside shoulder of Green, sucking in Catt. Kvesic can cross the 22:

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When Exeter recycle, there are five Bath players in the near half of the pitch. Cokanasiga has pushed up flat as well, leaving space in behind. Steenson and Armand assess all of this…

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….and Chiefs’ fly-half threads through a beautiful grubber for his back-rower to gather.

The 1-3-3-1 zonal formation also helped Saracens to victory over Harlequins and allows a team to use the full width of the field with industrious forwards resourcing rucks accurately.

Ewers and Ian Whitten registered two muscular tries to seal the bonus point for Exeter. Whitten’s was a fine team score featuring exceptional contact skills and punchy, narrow carries that bullied Bath. However, the fifth and final five-pointer was special.

Unstructured excellence

First, watch Nowell’s try through:

Just before Exeter force the turnover, we can see how Whitten is an influential and vocal defensive organiser. As an isolated Josh Bayliss takes contact, Whitten is calling teammates around the breakdown.

Meanwhile, Kvesic and Armand spot a chance to attack the ball:

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Both of them pounce and  slow the ball down significantly, causing a seven-second ruck that allows Exeter to reorganise. Kvesic and Armand stay alert and disciplined too. When referee Christophe Ridley calls “not now, second bite,” they peel away:

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Whitten presses off the line and make a dominant tackle on Zach Mercer that dislodges the ball. Henry Slade gathers it before sprinting up-field.

Exeter pride themselves on their fitness. Sure enough, even 70 minutes into an energy-sapping contest, Slade is pursued by five teammates – four backs and Kvesic. Note that Nowell is calling for an in-field kick from the left-footed Slade.

We should also highlight the back-tracking of Darren Atkins and Cokanasiga:

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Indeed, Atkins hauls down Slade. Yet Exeter adapt. Townsend hits the ruck, securing possession and creating an off-side line that retreating Bath players must reach:

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Slade is probably fortunate not to be penalised for playing on the floor due to his pass from the deck, but Kvesic does well to scoop up a bobbling throw…

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…and immediately transfers to Steenson, who has Nowell and Dollman in support:

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Steenson’s looped pass to Whitten puts his fellow Ulsterman on Bath’s outside edge…

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…and an offload to Nowell lays on the try.

Exeter ended the match in streetwise manner as well. Down to 14 men, they won a penalty five metres out from their own line.

Although Steenson tries to run down the clock, he is prompted to restart play with eight seconds remaining. He takes a quick tap penalty and links with Jack Yeandle…

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…who steps past Bayliss and charges beyond the 22:

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Exeter recycle and time ticks beyond 80 minutes. Steenson drops into the pocket and chips into touch to finish proceedings.

European silverware is a target for Rob Baxter, and Exeter take on Munster this coming Saturday to begin their Champions Cup campaign. Such a meeting provides a stern test of their credentials. Motivation will not be a problem for a squad that will feel they have something to prove in this tournament.

Their win over Bath, and specifically how they pulled away late on, highlighted Exeter’s collective sharpness and they head into Europe at the top of the Premiership table.

Even if that is only by virtue of points difference, they can feel confident in the advances they have since last season.

Match images courtesy of BT Sport