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The Exeter Chiefs recruitment of Stuart Hogg is a brilliant power play

By Ben Smith
Bringing in Stuart Hogg is a bold move that could take Exeter to another level. (Photos/Gettys Images)

The signing of Scotland’s fullback Stuart Hogg by the Exeter Chiefs on a two-year deal brings a sense of excitement and anticipation as the Chiefs look to re-tool in order to regain ascendancy in the Gallagher Premiership.

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The league leaders are still at the height of their game this season with six from six in the Premiership, but with one title out of three straight final appearances and early European exits, the Chiefs are still intent on maximizing this period of success.

Bringing in the star fullback doubles down on Rob Baxter’s possession-based high-tempo attacking strategy, having another unique talent as an interchangeable part to install in his system. The astute addition of Argentinian winger Santiago Cordero has already turned out to be a perfect fit – adding Hogg to the mix might just be better.

Perhaps the success of Cordero’s transition has increased the willingness of the Chiefs to do more than slightly dip their toes in the recruitment market, the splash signing of a global superstar like Hogg is the highest profile signing they have made yet. Indeed, Rob Baxter called the signing a ‘statement’.

If the 26-year-old can become fully fit and healthy at Sandy Park, he will surely slot into the starting number 15 jersey in a back three that is starting to get crowded. Welsh winger Alex Cuthbert arrived on a three-year deal in March, unheralded power wing Olly Woodburn is currently on the mend from a broken jaw, England utility back Jack Nowell is a frontline starter, and the new toy Cordero is only on a one-year commitment.

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If they can retain all of them, the Chiefs strike power out wide will be unrivaled in the Premiership. Particularly, a back three of Hogg, Cordero, and Nowell, will be an uncontainable unit of razor-sharp shifters, capable of unseen footwork that will cause headaches left, right and centre.

The style of Exeter’s play is the most enticing part of this move. One of the most under-rated parts of any contract decision for a player is weighing up how the new team will actually improve their game.

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Often big money moves result in fat wallets but if the move is to a disjointed organisation with poor coaching and substandard game strategy, it will generally lead to unhappiness for those with natural competitive instincts. Stuart Hogg needn’t have any such concerns at this point.

Exeter’s mauling game and tight play inside the 22 is traditional, but outside that zone is where the fun and games start. The Chiefs are a high-tempo backs-driven team, using width and utility backs to attack the edges frequently. Wingers are no longer just ‘wingers’ they are extra fullbacks and midfielders available to pop up everywhere.

Against Castres in their last Champions Cup pool match, Cordero himself notched 20 carries, while Nowell had 14. Centre Henry Slade managed 15, fullback Phil Dollman had 11. There is no shortage of touches, there will be plenty to go around and Hogg will get his.

This signing is a power play by Exeter, a sign that they are willing to continually evolve and not let this era slip away without doing everything possible to win more silverware. As Baxter put it, they want to reach ‘that next level’ – bringing in Hogg could do just that.

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More reaction:

Why Hogg had to leave Scotland

In other news:

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Poorfour 3 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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