A trip to Sandy Park is no easy task – the Exeter Chiefs have not conceded a loss in over 20 games at their home ground. Despite coming against the odds in their Premiership season opener, what Leicester dished up was frightening.
You expect rust, you expect a lack of fitness – you don’t expect a performance as aimless and meandering as what Leicester offered up. Exeter themselves were below their best for sixty minutes, but were never bothered at any stage by a lackluster Tigers outfit and finished with a flurry to bury the visitors 40-6.
The most worrying aspect of the game was the severe lack of intent to use the ball by the Tigers. When George Ford is continually plugging the corners from the attacking 40-metre line, you know you have strategic problems. The first five or six possessions in Exeter’s half were kicked away, many uncontested or returned for a 22 dropout – a pointless exercise in giving the ball away.
Ford’s kicking game is both his biggest strength and biggest weakness. He can drop it on a pin and expose wingers for huge territorial gains, but then doesn’t have a handle on when possession needs to be kept in hand. His ability to read the game situation and make sound kicking decisions seems non-existent. His go-to play of trying a kick is almost like a last resort because he can’t think of anything else or worse – there is no pattern for the side to fall back into.
After the first half of this game you could be forgiven for thinking ‘when are the Tigers going to play any rugby’. This was exemplified by the fact that Manu Tuilagi’s first touch of the game didn’t come until the 46th minute.
Heading into the wind in the second half, the team’s first possession went a good 60-metres on the back of some probing runs by Ford and May, putting Exeter on the back foot for the first time in the match. Knocking on the door of the 22, Ford tried another poor kick, an all-or-nothing grubber that was knocked on by May that would have gone into touch anyway.
This side has international talents Matt Toomua, Jonny May and Telusa Veainu wasting away on the fringes, watching on in despair as the side is continually forced to defend after either kicking the ball away or turning it over with errors.
Poor lineout set-piece and ball security issues plagued the forward pack, with only the strong ball carrying of flanker David Denton and the strength of the front row at scrum time offering a shining light in the performance.
After a first half of holding only a third of possession, the Tigers were forced to play more ball-in-hand in the second stanza. They struggled to build any continuity, with no discernible pattern to build pressure.
A problem seems to be the play of halfback Ben Youngs, who could be the most technically poor halfback in the competition.
His release and ball velocity are good, it’s the time taken to get the ball released that’s the problem. Picking up the ball, loading up the pass and even taking a few steps before passing upright is a sure way to cause problems with your own attack, creating slow ball to work with. He cannot fire the ball off the deck, standing up every time, and makes slow distribution decisions.
His work in-and-around the ruck looks lazy, with no urgency to find the ball and he often looks like he doesn’t know where the ball should go – another sign the Tigers have no idea what pattern they are in.
Here below is a four-second ruck for no other reason than Youngs wants to play a forward pod back to the left when his backs are open and ready to the right the same way. With no contest for the ball, Exeter can reload and bring line speed easily with this slow delivery.
There are times when playing slow can be beneficial, the problem with Youngs is there seems to be only one speed and he can’t lift the tempo.
When you add in the fact that his accuracy can be wayward at times, it’s hard to see where the Tigers will get better with this halves combination. Ford’s decision-making and Youngs’ technical ability compound the problems.
The team came under fire last year as similar issues persisted with the return of Australian coach Matt O’Connor from the Queensland Reds, and the chorus of doubters will only grow louder after this opening performance.
His season as the attack and backs coach with the Super Rugby franchise in 2016 ended abruptly after one of the worst seasons in Reds history, where the team was widely criticised for poor and almost non-existent structure – these issues are looming once again.
His stint before that with Irish club Leinster ended just two years into a three-year deal after the side fell apart with deteriorating play under his watch, criticised for a lack of creative running rugby. In his first season, he won the Pro12 with a squad of players inherited from current Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
He returned to the Tigers in 2017, back to where he found his first coaching success, winning two Premiership titles as an assistant to Richard Cockerill in 2009 and 2010. Cockerill was promoted to Director of Rugby at the club, opening the pathway for O’Connor to take the head-coaching job in 2011. Leicester were losing finalists back-to-back before capturing a third title in five years in 2013.
O’Connor’s coaching career has been unusual with success achieved with inherited squads before either rapid decline or quickly moving on. Last year with O’Connor in charge was the first time the Tigers missed the Premiership playoffs in over a decade (and his first at the club without Cockerill).
Since this success in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, it could be said the English game has modernised, but the Tigers have not. Exeter’s own rise has been on the back of a possession-based game and others like Saracens and Wasps have also played an attacking style of rugby and remain the Premiership’s power clubs.
Based on the opening game, the Tigers need to find a fresh direction and fast if they are going to salvage this season. That means finding an innovative coach who has a track record of success with modern attacking play, rather than looking to play 10-man rugby from the past to find the answer.
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