Exeter Chiefs’ season review 2021-22
After an impressive display in their final game at Sandy Park, James Webb reviews the Exeter Chiefs’ disappointing season.
Exeter Chiefs concluded their 2021-22 campaign with a victory in the replay of last season’s final against reigning champions Harlequins. It was a thrilling encounter that contained 13 tries and ample amounts of exciting running rugby from both sides, providing a small sparkle at the end of a topsy-turvy and ultimately underwhelming season for the Chiefs. They failed to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season.
The answer as to why Exeter experienced a short term slump this season is (as always) more complex than pinning the blame on just one factor. The Exeter Chiefs of the past six or so seasons had become infamous for their very forward oriented attack, especially once they reached striking distance within the opposition’s 22-metre line. Their big, heavy forwards would pre-latch at the back of a ruck and continue to batter down the opposition defenders, with the worst outcome being held-up over the try line resulting in an Exeter scrum. This would generally restart the cycle of big forward carries, making a five or seven-point haul almost inevitable in many cases.
However, new laws that were introduced at the start of the season included a ban on excessive pre-latching and greater scrutiny over the sealing off of attacking rucks. Also, a goal-line drop-out is now awarded to the defending team for a held-up ball, severely dampening the usefulness of the tactics that Exeter had relied on for so long. While head coach Rob Baxter refutes this argument, losses in closely fought games this season were arguably down to a decline in the number of tries scored compared to the previous season.
Losses in closely fought games this season were arguably down to a decline in the number of tries scored compared to the previous season
Furthermore, the Chiefs had to deal with a greater inconsistency in selection compared to last year, with the big names of Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Gray (amongst others) all injured for large parts of the season. Some other key players also missed Premiership action due to international duties. This left major gaps in the usual second and back rows. Baxter noted this stretched his squad over the limits, clearly contributing to losses that were unlikely at the beginning of the season.
Things are not about to necessarily get easier in this department either with Sam Skinner, Jonny Hill, Tom O’Flaherty and five others all moving on from Sandy Park and the replacements are scarce due to the pressures of the salary cap. However, Chiefs are likely to have less players in England’s summer tour as well as a longer pre-season which should only aid their preparations in turning around the temporary decline in their form. This would once again mean they can challenge for the Premiership title as they have done so successfully for the past six years.