To call Exeter boring is grossly unfair. They have got confidence, patience and belief
Rob Baxter’s side play to their strengths and they should make no apology for that ahead of the final
So, apparently Exeter are boring. Duller than dishwater. Less entertaining than creosote drying on Alan Shearer’s fence. More yawn-inducing than the minutes of a Rugby Football Union council meeting.
Then I remembered to check the Gallagher Premiership table to remind myself that no team scored more than their 89 tries. That is 12 more than Saracens’ British and Irish Lions all-stars and nearly double the total scored by a Leicester Tigers team with half of England’s back division. In their past two matches against
Northampton Saints, the fourthbest team in English rugby, they have scored 12 tries without kicking a single penalty.
Clearly, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but I have always liked teams who score tries. Maybe I am in a minority on that one, but I would much rather see a team try to play rugby than kick for the posts. My idea of boring is two teams who are too scared to have a go exchanging penalties.
To call Exeter boring is grossly unfair. Predictable maybe. It is one thing being called predictable and another thing being able to stop it.
Why should Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, stop going to the if it keeps producing water? Ultimately, the decision to kick to a corner rather than the posts comes down to a mathematical equation.
In their semi-final victory against Northampton, they turned down nine kickable penalties for kicks from which they scored five tries and 35 points. That is a return of 3.9 points per penalty. Again, in their round-10 meeting with Saracens, when both sides were at full strength, they scored four tries from seven kickable penalties, which is an average of four points per kickable penalty.
Exeter back themselves, back their driving maul and back their pick-and-go game. They keep going and going and going without ever seeming to turn it over. They have got confidence, patience and belief. The Premiership would be an even better competition (and it has been amazing this season) if more teams played with those qualities. Sandy Park is nearly always sold out, so they must be doing something right.
Sir Clive Woodward once stood up in the England changing room and said: “Right lads, how many dropped goals can we score in a match now that we have Jonny Wilkinson, the king of dropped goals, in our team?” My answer to him was none, because going for a dropped goal shows that we have not got the belief we are going to score a try, which gives the upper hand to the defence. That is why I like Exeter’s style of rugby. They say: “We believe you can’t stop us.”
They also have more than one string to their bow. Go back to the semi-final again and see Tom O’flaherty carving up the
Northampton defence from the halfway line. Or Joe Simmonds throwing a dummy for his try. Or Sam Hill carrying three defenders over the line. Those are not the scores of an unadventurous team.
If you go back a week further, just before half-time Northampton were down to 13 men and Exeter had a five-metre scrum. Clearly the backs called for the ball and Ollie Devoto ended up being picked off by Cobus Reinach, who went up the other end to score. Are you telling me this team do not play with ambition? Stuart Hogg is joining this summer, which is a sign they want to play.
Are they the reincarnation of the 1973 Barbarians? No. Are they a side who play to their strengths? Undoubtedly, but they should make no apology for that. The stats show they are spending fewer phases in the 22 than in previous seasons, which demonstrates they are becoming ever more efficient.
The question is whether their style will be enough to beat Saracens in the final. Leinster employed much the same template in the Champions Cup final, but found themselves getting smashed backwards. When you look at the packs, you would have to give Saracens the upper hand, so maybe this is the time for Exeter to wheel out their party pieces.
Baxter must be praying that Santiago Cordero is fit enough to start, because he can find space where few other players can. It would also permit him to move Jack Nowell back to the wing, where he is far more effective in hunting for work and attacking the fringes around rucks. Of all the areas on the field, the skill of the back three will be the decisive factor. Saracens have the edge right now, but I think Exeter have been keeping something in reserve. It will be a cracking final between the best teams in the country.
Running man: Exeter wing Tom O’flaherty is set to be a key player in the Gallagher Premiership final