The steps Exeter Chiefs must take to build upon their loss to Saracens in the Premiership final.
In an admirable endeavour to protect their title of champions of England last weekend, Rob Baxter’s Exeter Chiefs were cut down in their season’s final trial against a reinvigorated Saracens side. Baxter’s charges may have led themselves to a healthy eight-point safety net at the top of the league table, but they were brought to a halt when faced with the next tier of opponent when compared to the average Premiership team. Against the juggernaut-like nature of Saracens and Leinster (in Europe), they found themselves missing the kind of edge that builds rugby dynasties.
As with any team with an unquenchable thirst for success, Chiefs will be intent on discovering what separated themselves from the best this year. Back up to full fervour and in tumultuous form in the last nine games of the regular season, they still could not topple a Saracens side back to their absolute strength.
So, what are the areas the Chiefs can build upon to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Saracens and Leinster?
Rotation policy at ten
For as well as Joe Simmonds has conducted himself since taking the mantle from Gareth Steenson in March, he struggled to take full control of his side when faced with the second highest point scorer in England’s history over the weekend, the esteemed Mr Farrell. The Saracens pivot pulled all the tricks out of the bag on Saturday with precisely executed territorial kicks to apply pressure, chips in behind the Exeter defensive and his usual world-class, killer passing game. In contrast, Simmonds was not able to apply himself to the same level of diversified threat, allowing Exeter to become a relatively predictable side to defend against.
While playing behind a pack coming off second best does severely hamper the capabilities of even the best fly-halves, Chiefs did have their moments in the ascendancy, times in which Simmonds would have to have shown an extreme clinical edge to make any significant impact on the final score. This should not be taken as a slight towards Simmonds, after all, he has only been at the helm of a Premiership side for less than three months and has done better than most.
Once the experienced head of Steenson replaced Simmonds in the 49th minute at Twickenham on Saturday, Exeter did manage to find a more stable foothold in the game, with the Ulsterman crossing for Chiefs only try of the day. The dilemma for Baxter and his coaching cohort is that while any team with aspirations to lift regular trophies needs an experienced head guiding it, Steenson is 34 and does not offer the same attacking spark as the younger of the two half-backs.
The best middle ground for the Chiefs is to adopt a rotation system akin to the one Saracens employed with Owen Farrell and Charlie Hodgson before the latter retired. Allow Simmonds to enjoy ample time in the starting jersey while also benefitting from the ability to sit back and learn from Steenson, who I’m sure would be all too happy to trade roles every three or four weeks after being ousted from his role by a 21-year-old hotshot.
In addition to the benefits towards Simmonds’ development, the ability to keep both players match-sharp, there is the added bonus of ensuring both stay fresh for their designated starting blocks. The option to switch in Steenson for bigger games that require a more senior hand behind the wheel would also becomes more viable, having spent more regular time in the starting jersey than in the last third of this season.
Increased phase-to-phase tempo
One particular point that separated Saracens’ performance to Exeter’s last Saturday was the pace in which the newly crowned champions recycled their ball and sent in their one-out-carriers. Exeter’s defensive line barely had any time to reset after each thunderous carry from a member of the Wolf Pack. Comparatively, Nic White and his forward unit did not create the same speed of ball, or at least, not consistently.
Saracens thrive on shutting down teams with their defensive pace, while Chiefs have players such as Jack Nowell, Sam Hill, Olly Woodburn and both Simmonds brothers that thrive on running at defensive lines still resetting. If Exeter had managed to minimise the time Saracens defence was permitted to refill and set, they may have found a few more weaker shoulders and disjointed units.
Whether Rob Baxter decides to do this by selecting an out-and-out breakdown specialist in the shape of Matt Kvesic, trade the bulk of Mitch Lees around the park for the pace of Sam Skinner or identify slight tweaks in his game plan, this is an area that must be highlighted to truly take the next step up.
Bring Devoto into the regular XV
When Exeter were at their best at Twickenham, it usually involved a carry and subsequent offload from barnstorming Zimbabwean-born backrow Dave Ewers. Exeter needed more tackle-busters or simply players able to ride the contact and free their arms for the offload to one of the many intelligent support runners within Chiefs’ ranks. One such man that can add this and many more weapons to the Exeter arsenal is former Bath and England centre Ollie Devoto.
The 24-year-old, 6ft 4” centre has the frame, the strength and the rugby brain (borne of his development as a fly-half) to build upon Chiefs’ game. Specifically, Devoto should be slotted into the jersey currently occupied by Sam Hill, at twelve. As well as Hill performed last weekend, often his direct running game was stopped dead by the Sarries defensive line. At six foot, there is a limit to how much damage Hill has been able to inflict on top defences and was shut down more often than not. Bringing in Devoto not only adds a sizeable option for the carry and offload combo, but rugby intelligence, something that simply no side can comfortably say they wouldn’t benefit from more of.
If Leinster saw fit to bring in the experienced head of Stuart Lancaster in 2016, I can think of no valid argument as to why Exeter couldn’t look to do the same. While Lancaster seems firmly rooted in the Leinster set-up at the moment, there will be at least a few senior coaches dotted around the globe that could be enticed to at least a part-time role with a side possessing the potential to become Premiership (again) and European champions.
If Baxter can find a man that fits the bill, having someone on board with experience in multiple top-tier clubs and the international scene could help take the Chiefs to the next level. Even at the top of the coaching food chain down in Devon, Baxter himself has only ever sampled the Exeter cuisine. The Chiefs boss could also take away plenty from such an individual. As long as Baxter is happy with the dynamic the new man brings to the excellent ethos he has built at Exeter, I can see no downsides for the Chiefs.
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