Sitting on top of Pool 2 with 3 wins from 3 games and 14 points-a feat only matched by Leinster in this season-it’s fair to say that the Exeter Chiefs have had a strong start to the Champions Cup. This analysis will look how the Exeter’s attack is stacking up and an innovative pod structure they are using to keep opposition defences guessing.
When we usually think about pods in rugby, the first image that will jump into most people’s mind is three forwards standing bunched together at the edge of a ruck; waiting for a pass from a scrum-half.
As the image above from the Bristol game in November shows, Exeter are not immune to this approach themselves.
With three large players in close proximity, this pod structure is ideal near the sidelines or try line where defences are most aggressive; giving attacking teams a better chance to win collisions in crowded areas while keeping possession. There are also drawbacks however.
With the traditional 3-man pod, it’s also easier for defences to pick out the ball-carrier early, slow the ball down at the ruck and, as happens above, force the attacking team to kick the ball away because they’ve lost momentum.
With these issues in mind, let’s then take a look at Exeter’s innovative approach to bringing life back into their attack.
Our first example comes from Exeter’s opening game of the Champions Cup against La Rochelle.
After a scrappy lineout and choke tackle on centre Ian Whitten that gives La Rochelle 8 seconds to reset their defence, Exeter find themselves in a slow ruck ball situation once again. However, this time things are different.
Instead of a standard 3-man forward pod, Exeter have stacked their players in a line outside number 10 Joe Simmonds. While it’s relatively easy to guess where the ball will go in a traditional pod, suddenly the presence of backs Henry Slade and Alex Cuthbert behind flanker Dave Ewers makes it not so obvious. Let’s roll on the clip and see what happens next.
With Simmonds taking the ball to the line and pacy backs lurking outside him, La Rochelle’s defenders are reluctant to focus solely on Ewers, allowing the backrow to win the collision.
Positioning Slade right behind his teammate also enables Exeter to clean the ruck out quicker, resulting in the ball coming out 4 seconds faster than the previous breakdown.
Although nothing comes of this run of play, the quick ball and defensive uncertainty that the stacked pod creates is self-evident.
Another good example of the stacked pod making defenders question themselves is in the Bristol game we opened the article with.
This time it’s the first runner that causes the confusion as Jack Yeandle runs the short line with Jonny Hill in tow.
Faced with the imminent threat of Yeandle, Bristol’s Dave Atwood panics and tackles the hooker without the ball, conceding a penalty to give Exeter an easy three points.
Amongst many advantages, one of the most apparent is freedom that the vertical pod gives Exeter’s players to use varying angles of running compared to the traditional lateral formation. Let’s take the example below from last weekend’s European win over Sale to see how this works.
This time playing off 9, Ewers again spear-heads the pod for Exeter, with fellow forwards Luke Cowan-Dickie and Hill in behind. In this instance, Ewers has a slight inward angle on his run. Whether he receives the ball or not, this serves to narrow the focus of the Sale defenders on Ewers attacking the edge of the ruck.
With the threat of the bulky backrow established, scrumhalf Nic White then passes behind Ewers to the deeper Cowan-Dickie running the other way; who in turn releases Hill outside him to get over the gain-line.
Even in situations where teams have done their analysis on Exeter and prepared to defend the stacked pod, the English club are clever at using it to disguise other attacking threats.
In this example above from their win over Glasgow, Exeter start with a stacked pod of three backs.
Joe Simmonds stands at the head of the pod but instead of carrying into contact himself, Simmonds plays a switch pass to Whitten, allowing the centre to isolate a tackler and provide quick ball for Exeter.
However, despite securing quick ball , Glasgow have defended the stacked pod quite comfortably and managed to stop Exeter progressing up the pitch. Aware of this, Exeter work their way back into a similar position and try a variation.
Once again we can see a queue of three players lining up for Exeter-and Glasgow see them too-with all their defenders looking at the stacked pod. Just when it looks like Glasgow have them where they want them, Exeter spring a surprise.
Using the pod as a decoy, Joe Simmonds passes the ball inside to his brother Sam who bursts past the unsuspecting Glasgow defenders to bring Exeter into the 22. It’s a very intelligent moment of play from the Devon side that shows not only their awareness of the threats that the pod presents itself, but also it’s potential as a distraction to open up space elsewhere.
This awareness also plays into the stacked pod’s potential as a way of producing tries for Exeter, best exemplified by a score in their Premiership away win against Worcester this season.
Hill and Matt Kvesic are the willing runners on this occasion, coming at a speed that forces the Worcester defenders to sit off and brace for a potential tackle.
Having established the pod as a threat, Simmonds passes in behind to winger Tom O’Flaherty, who finds Jacques Vermeulen on the angle before scrum-half Jack Maunder scores.
Although he doesn’t receive the ball and a stop is unlikely, it’s also worth pointing out that Kvesic additionally makes sure that Worcester’s Callum Black can’t make a covering tackle on Vermeulen by continuing his run beyond the ball.
As defences have become increasingly used to static pods of forwards running at them phase after phase, Exeter have shown a simple but effective way to change the picture and reap the rewards. Whether it’s producing quick ball, penalties, line breaks or tries, Exeter’s innovative approach to pods has their attack stacking up well with the season now in full swing.
For anyone who couldn’t read the last article about Leinster on the Sports News Ireland website, I’ve now posted it on this website too for ease of access. Just click on the following link and it will bring you to the piece: https://ekrugbyanalysis.com/2019/12/11/analysis-how-leinsters-attack-got-the-edge-over-northampton/
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