Thursday 19 September 2019

Exeter have to change to be chiefs of Europe

Gloucester’s Jason Woodward scores their first try against Exeter on Friday night. Photo: PA
Gloucester’s Jason Woodward scores their first try against Exeter on Friday night. Photo: PA

Ian McGeechan

Mastering the psychology of playing in Europe takes years, as Exeter have learnt over the past few seasons in the Heineken Champions Cup. At the same time, they are battling against high expectations after their success in the Premiership.

Friday's bonus-point win at Gloucester has given them a slender lifeline of progressing to the quarter-finals, having failed to pick up a victory in the first three rounds.

As a coach, I wanted to win Europe more than the Premiership. When I was at Northampton in the mid-1990s, we set out a five-year plan to win the European Cup. I said to the players that we had to produce and develop a game that would beat Toulouse, who were the outstanding side at the time.

When we trained, that was all we talked about. If we could do that, everything else would fall into place. It was high intensity, high pace, a lot of passing. But it took us years to master that style. In the end, funnily enough, Northampton won the European Cup in four years, not five, without facing Toulouse after Munster defeated them in the semi-finals.

My point is that Europe challenges you differently. Rob Baxter and his assistant Ali Hepher have done such a good job with Exeter. They have built them up in stages from promotion to Premiership winners, while also bringing through academy players from Devon and Cornwall. It has been an extensive development and everything has been about establishing their Premiership status.

Now to be successful in the Champions Cup, having been in the last eight in Europe only once, they are required to change their psychology and move their game forward.

Your set-piece has to be good in Europe to defeat the top teams, but your phase play has to be consistently good too because you are facing better opposition.

Exeter in the group stages last year were caught out at the breakdown by Leinster. Teams analysing Exeter will have seen how good they are at building phases, and as a result worked out ways to challenge them in different areas to break up that continuity.

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Leinster did that by putting more bodies into the breakdown. Exeter like to have two or three bodies in the ruck and Leinster would let them build two or three phases, and then when Exeter's attack began to break up, they would suddenly put five players into the ruck to try to win the ball.

Leinster did the same to Saracens in last season's Champions Cup quarter-final, coincidentally the last game that Saracens lost, in April. Mark McCall and his coaching staff responded to being out-thought in that area by having their players clear out the breakdown quicker than any other team in the second half of the season on the way to winning the Premiership final.

Exeter, however, still rely too heavily on building momentum through phase play. Munster challenged them at the breakdown. Gloucester did too, but also played rugby which gave Exeter no way into their 22, pinning them back in their own half, where the Chiefs never want to be.

In the rematch on Friday night we saw that Gloucester are on a similar learning curve. They should not have changed tactics because they were at home. They tried to play more rugby earlier in phases and Exeter pressurised them into errors, especially in their own half. Exeter used Gloucester's mistakes to control the game, resulting in four tries from five metres out from short range.

Gloucester needed to apply the same unsettling tactics that threw Exeter off their game at Sandy Park back at home in front of the Shed, but they chose not to. With teams finding ways to pick Exeter apart, the well-oiled machine is not functioning as effectively because all 15 players on a tactical basis are not integrating as well as we have seen in the past. The tactical challenge they face is ensuring they do not forget their identity as a side, but add some variety.

They are a structured team, but not overly rigid, as some people suggest.

However, because opponents are beginning to put pressure on Exeter both at the breakdown and at first and second receiver, the Chiefs have less time to formulate their attacks.

This is where coaches and players sit down and say, "We need to look at attacking through different channels". You might use the same ball carriers, but just introduce a little move to get them one pass further out in order to attack a bit wider.

If teams are pressuring you at breakdowns two to four, where Exeter like to build momentum before attacking on phase five, then varying up when that key attacking phase happens can unsettle defences.

Gloucester at Sandy Park made Exeter feel uncomfortable and, as a result of the pressure they applied, Exeter's players looked to force passes or kicks from within their own half and consequently made errors, enabling Gloucester to put them right back under pressure.

By taking the pace out of Exeter's game they killed off their momentum. Which is why Exeter now need variety: to prevent their opponents from targeting them at specific areas and shutting them down. Mixing up your approach means that you camouflage your strengths, and your opponents no longer know what to expect.

It is not about ripping up a good engine, which we saw in glimpses from Exeter in Friday night's win at Gloucester, especially at the scrum. You just need to modify it.

In terms of what this tricky passage in Europe means for Baxter, this is all part of his development as a coach. Recognising that Europe is a different challenge is one thing, but you cannot let it be a heavy weight on your shoulders.

The best teams adapt to the circumstances of each contest, which is why the likes of Leinster and Saracens win the big games. Make the necessary changes and Exeter can join that elite, starting when they face Saracens in the Premiership next weekend.


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