As their head coach Ali Hepher noted, Exeter Chiefs had suffered major losses at StoneX Stadium before. “We’ve been here against Saracens in the past, we lost heavily but we also learned the lessons and came back stronger,” he said, understandably proactive after a 35-3 demolition where Exeter had a hard time playing against the wind and then couldn’t. by behaving. Don’t break the Saracens’ defenses on their backs.
This current version of Exeter feels far from the winning side of a domestic and European pair at the heart of the pandemic. Before Hepher challenged the squad for the remainder of the season and admitted with admirable honesty that Exeter was trying to revive, “we’re where we are—a side in the middle of the table.”
“It’s not what we do here that makes or breaks our season, it’s what we do in the next four or five games,” Hepher said.
“We are clearly in the process of restructuring. We lost because we couldn’t keep the players within the salary cap. We need to reboot and refresh. We are below where we were, but we are getting back to that point. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s exciting.”
While the Premiership table is tight and Exeter sits just five points outside the playoff points after 11 rounds, the combination of Hepher’s quotes and Exeter’s results is enough to suggest that a playoff spot could be beyond them this season. It was last season that Exeter finished the campaign in seventh place.
Salary cap hit hard
The salary cap point is appropriate. With Sam Simmonds and Luke Cowan-Dickie heading to Montpellier at the end of this season, Jack Nowell (according to Rob Baxter’s comments this week) looks destined to follow them through the exit door. The trio have been three of the major success stories Exeter has developed in-house, and their subsequent departures include potential exits for two more local products at Joe Simmonds and Dave Ewers, and potential exits for a key contributor at Jannes Kirsten linked to a return to South Africa. it will hurt. .
Looking back at the 23-man squads that enjoyed success in the Gallagher Premiership and Champions Cup finals in 2020, the number of players remaining at Exeter naturally continues to decline.
Tom O’Flaherty, Jonny Grey, Sam Skinner, Tomas Francis, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Gareth Steenson (retired) are long gone – not to forget the contributions of Nic White, Matt Kvesic (both leaving before the finals) in their campaign. Don Armand (retired) and Alex Cuthbert – will follow up with Sam Simmonds, Cowan-Dickie and Nowell.
The impressive contract extensions secured by the club in the summer of 2020 are starting to reach an expiration date, but it appears that Exeter has made a number of new deals privately without being made public. Stuart Hogg’s contract, for example, did not expire this summer.
Staff is not the only factor. The 2021 law change on goal-line departures led to a significant reduction in attempts scored – from an average of 4.3 to 3.4 per game – but as Baxter pointed out last April, Exeter only had one shot against them after failing to score at close range. handful were kicked out of the game. It was more of a mental blockage as it infiltrated their constant chatter mentality that Exeter would struggle with before they could prepare for multiple five meter offenses and slaps.
Efficiency on the Rival 22 has become Exeter’s hallmark in their glory, especially from 10 meters away. The lack of that against the Saracens is less worrying though, given that Exeter has barely made it into the Saracens’ 22. Before you worry about finishing chances, you have to be in a position to actually create them, so last Saturday’s numbers are 33 percent territory, 19 turnovers admitted, six replay losses and 16 penalties (to Saracens’ five) are more worrying.
Comparing Exeter to the last four seasons, they averaged low for tries, turnovers and home line-outs in 2022-23 and high for penalties admitted. Drains (fractionally) and tackles are also low, while there are two positive highs – hand hits and formation steals.
But enough negativity. Hepher is right that while the remake can be tested for results, the prospect of hitting the top again with a new cast of players is something to be excited about. Guard Josh Hodge (22), scrum-half Sam Maunder (22) and back rowers Santiago Grondona (24), Christ Tshiunza (20) and Greg Fsilau (19) were in the starting five against the Saracens. Hopes are high for 20-year-old Lock Dafydd Jenkins, who was worn by Wales in the fall.
Exeter will also be strengthened in the short term with the participation of Hogg, Sam Simmonds, Cowan-Dickie, Ewers and Ian Whitten. By mid-March, they’ll find out if their season will end in a first four chases or bottom row uncertainty, after Gloucester, Sale and Harlequins after Saturday’s Premiership games against Northampton.
But the intriguing long-term future is the potential for young forwards to grow into top-notch operators, and the prospect of Exeter knocking out Devon (and Cornwall) for the next wave of Simmonds, Nowells and Cowan-Dickies – meanwhile, Frankie Nowell Jack’s 20 His younger brother, aged 16, has already played for Exeter this season.
Given the dwindling salary cap and lucrative offers to relocate their players, victims of their own success had to hit the Exeter reset button in case some wanted to make money at the end of their careers. It’s fascinating whether they’ll be running again five years from now, or whether they’ll still find their way back to the top.