Gloucester defended its home patch with a 28-21 win over the Exeter Chiefs in a pulsating match. If this is a taster of what we are in for this year, then it will be a treat. Here are six things we learned:
Loose kicking will kill you at every level
Less than five minutes into the new season we saw yet again that bad kicking in your own half can only lead to bad things.
Gloucester had to be happy with their start to the match. They took the best blows that Exeter threw at them during its first real series of phases and used a modified rush defence to shut the Chiefs down. After more than 15 phases they managed to bundle a ball carrier into touch and protect their line.
Then Billy Burns made the disastrous decision to try a chip kick from just outside his own 22. A couple of good reads in open play later and the Chiefs had turned his loose kick into a Sam Simmonds try in the corner.
It is those small margins that change games and this showed the difference early between a champion team and one trying to reach that level.
It was passive attack vs passive defence
The two game plans were an interesting mix in this one, especially when Exeter had the ball. The Chiefs want to beat you by retaining possession and working through the phases until they score. They are not looking for crazy offloads in the tackle or giant line breaks, they are content to move the ball slowly down the pitch until an opening presents itself.
Gloucester has a similar plan on defence. Johan Ackermann wants his team’s line speed to be good, getting up and taking the ball carrier down before the gain line. He does not, however, want counter-ruckers unless his side has a near 100% chance of turning over the ball. As a result of these styles, there were long periods in the game where Exeter could rack up phase after phase with little forward movement of the ball and zero chance of it being stolen.
Exeter competes at every breakdown
As Gloucester backed off from the breakdown to get their defensive pattern in place and keep their line speed up, Exeter took a different approach when the opposition players were carrying the ball. The Chiefs competed at every breakdown they had half a sniff at, muddying up the Gloucester ball and slowing their opponents down. This work at the breakdown also led to a number of penalties in the first 20 minutes as the Gloucester ruckers could not move their Chiefs counterparts away from the ball.
It is a hard defensive system to maintain for a full 80 minutes as fitness levels have to be high at every breakdown to compete. It is a facet of the game that Exeter has really worked on this preseason.
The new scrum rules mean nothing
There was a lot of preseason buzz over how the new scrum rules (the ball must be fed into the middle and the ball immediately struck) would result in a fairer contest for possession. On first viewing, this would be a big nope.
The ball is still fed into the feet of the attacking side in the most obvious way. There wasn’t even a hint of the ball being thrown into the centre of the scrum at any point during this match, which makes you wonder exactly what the point was in re-emphasising and rewriting this law in the first place?
Henry Slade’s boot is not always golden
The defining moment in the Chiefs’ run to the championship last season was a 60-metre Henry Slade Howitzer of a kick in the semifinal against Saracens. It was a kick that gave Exeter a line-out five metres from the Sarries try line and provided the platform for them to win the match.
On this day, Slade was off just enough for Gloucester to win the game. He missed two penalty kicks to touch in the first half, each of which would have set Exeter up in position to put a try on the board. Then – crucially – he pulled a 30-metre penalty wide of the mark with three minutes to go and the score tied at 21. A successful kick here would have been devastating to Gloucester and likely impossible to come back from, instead, the miss renewed their hope and led to a most remarkable finish.
Gloucester never gave up
In fairness, neither side gave this one up as a draw looked more and more likely. Instead, both teams – but especially Gloucester – threw caution to the wind and began to swing the ball around the pitch in hopes of finding that winning try.
After Slade missed his late penalty it still seemed like the Chiefs were the more likely team to come up with the win. As defending champions – and with a long winning streak behind them – Exeter seemed primed for a moment like this. Instead, it was Gloucester who made the most of what looked like a loose carry. Billy Twelvetrees – who was influential after he came on – made a line break off of the fringes of a ruck and hit Jason Woodward running an outstanding line to cross for the try.
The season is officially off to a flier.
What else did you notice? Let us know in the comments!
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