Part 4 of the series will focus on the Champions Cup game between Exeter and Montpellier at Sandy Park. Match highlights can be found here.
It is a widely known fact (or at least it should be!) that once a team gets into the opposition 22, the more phases they have the less likely they are to score. Exeter have long been one of the few teams able to buck this trend.
In this game, Exeter scored 6 tries. Each time, they scored after multiple phases close to the Montpellier line. Let’s look at how they approached each try, and see if we can learn how Exeter are managing to score their close-range tries.
There is a lot going on in this picture. Exeter have had several pick and go attempts already. In the yellow circle, we see Harry Williams (3) is holding Montpellier flanker Yacouba Camara into the ruck. Camara is fighting to get himself free, as he can see the danger. However, Williams has a firm hold of his shirt and will not let go. This leaves Louis Picamoles (8) isolated. The only other defenders on that side are the Montpellier halfbacks.
Exeter have a pod of 4 forwards. This includes Don Armand (7) at 115kg, Dave Ewers (6) at 125kg, Jonny Hill (5) at 112kg and Mitch Lees (4) at 122kg. The Exeter forwards bind tightly to one another, combining their force. Louis Picamoles is a big strong man, but on his own, and with 474kg of explosive forward power coming at him, there is only one winner.
To maximise the Exeter advantage, Dave Ewers runs at an angle, forcing Picamoles to hit him from the side. This means Picamoles has an even tougher job to stop the pod. Unsurprisingly, he fails.
Like the Ewers try, this picture shows a ruck after several pick and go attempts by Exeter. Sam Simmonds is actually blocking our view of him, but Bismark Du Plessis is crouching next to the post guarding the left side of the ruck. Yacouba Camara is again close to the ruck but unable to help, this time because he is unsighted and blocked by the post. Therefore the nearest help for Du Plessis is his fly-half, Aaron Cruden. For all Cruden’s many fine qualities as a player, he is not the man Montpellier would like to have in that role.
The most obvious way for Sam Simmonds (8) to score is to dive at the base of the posts. Du Plessis has anticipated this and crouched very low, which is why we can’t see him. Another option for Simmonds is to carry the ball at an angle, forcing Bismark to hit him from the side. Du Plessis would also be hampered by the post. The two locks, Jonny Hill and Mitch Lees, are again on hand to lend their weight. Therefore Cruden would be left having to make a dominant tackle against a collective 337kg of angry Exeter forwards.
Instead of either option, Simmons surprises everyone and dummies, spinning and diving over the ruck to score the try. This showed a great deal of confidence and imagination because it was probably the hardest of his available options.
This picture shows Ollie Woodburn in space 5m from the try line. Woodburn has angled his body back infield and is able to ride the momentum of the covering tackles and produce an incredible finish.
The move starts with a 5m scrum under the posts for Exeter. The Chiefs have been dominant in the scrums all game, winning several penalties. Everyone expects a pushover attempt, and if that fails for the explosive Sam Simmonds to power off the base into Aaron Cruden. Instead, Exeter goes left. They hold the drift defence with a Henry Slade decoy run. Gareth Steenson floats a long pass behind Slade to Woodburn, who would walk over the line untouched. Unfortunately, the pass bounces before reaching him and Woodburn is forced to produce that world class finish.
The bonus point try again starts with an Exeter scrum 5m out under the posts. Again Exeter chooses to go left, again Slade holds the defence with a dummy run and again the pass isn’t very good. Woodburn repeats his exploits from 6 minutes earlier, scoring another spectacular try in the same corner under heavy pressure. With this try, the Chiefs show a willingness to press home an advantage by repeatedly attacking the same weakness.
This try comes from a ruck 5m from the Montpellier line following a break. We see a pod of forwards, circled, including Thomas Francis and both second rows ready to go. The Montpellier defence anticipate Lees taking the ball up with his pod and trying to crash over the line. Henry Slade (13) approaches the ruck, looking like he will pass. However, Slade bridges over the ball, securing it for Nic White (9). This confuses Bismark Du Plessis and Gabriel N’gandebe (14). They aren’t sure whether Slade is actually going to pick up the ball himself and try to sneak over the line. In their confusion, they can’t work out who should guard the blind side of the ruck, so in the end neither player does.
Nic White spots the defensive error, sneaks around the blind side and scores the fifth Exeter try.
In this picture we don’t see the Don Armand try but the phase preceding it. Luke Cowan-Dickie picks the ball up at the base of a ruck and drives at an angle towards the posts. He is tantalisingly close to scoring against the base, which we see in the pink circle. This is the moment a less disciplined player may well overreach and try to score. Montpellier would then have the chance to slow the ball or even turn it over. However Cowan-Dickie does not try to force the ball that extra 5cm. He instead makes sure the ball is recycled, and Don Armand is able to score in the very next phase.
What can we conclude from these tries?
Exeter scored 5 different types of try. It seems the key to their play inside the 22 is to have plenty of variety and invention in their pick and go game, shown by the Sam Simmonds try. This is combined with an ability to spot when a team has over-committed and go wide, demonstrated in the two scores from Ollie Woodburn. They pick and go most of the time, but it is often at an angle rather than directly at the line, shown in the Dave Ewers try.
The Chiefs don’t over-reach when close to the line. Luke Cowan-Dickie showed this before the Don Armand try. They have a patience born of confidence in their system. Because of the angle they are able to turn in contact and prevent opposition slowing the ball down easily. They also prevent the opposition driving them back towards the previous ruck. They often bridge rather than clear out, making sure they aren’t off their feet. The whole team knows exactly what they are trying to achieve.
Rugby IQ Series: Part 5 will be coming soon. See you next time!
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.