New Zealand-esque levels are being reached by the Chiefs’ ‘total rugby’ style


Nobody could seriously argue against the fact that Exeter Chiefs are currently playing the most potent brand of rugby in the English Premiership.

Their first-half display against Bath last week was arguably the most complete 40 minutes in top-flight history, with their ability to retain the ball, recycle at pace, bust holes in the opposition’s rearguard and finish tries now almost unmatched.

Last month, writing in his weekly column for The Times newspaper, Sky Sports pundit Stuart Barnes accused Exeter of “killing the game”.

He basically argued that going through 20-30 phases was boring and that Chiefs were encouraging a Rugby League mentality whereby other teams would simply copy it and defences would just fan out.

You can see Barnes’ point but that still doesn’t make him right.

In League, as he correctly points out, you have a ‘six-tackle’ rule that demands a team turns the ball over if they have not scored a try or forced another ‘set of six’, but in Union surely the whole point of the exercise is to retain possession of the ball and exert pressure in such a way?

How often do you hear losing Rugby Union coaches bemoaning their side’s inability to ‘cherish the pill’ or inaccuracies in attack? In other words, they kept dropping the ball!

It’s a common refrain, even amongst winning coaches, so why should a guy like Barnes now criticise an Exeter team that has totally mastered the art of keep-ball?

Posession and entertainment

I simply don’t get it. If Exeter were failing to entertain the Sandy Park faithful or producing a staccato brand of possession rugby whereby the ball was simply trucked-up, phase after phase through the middle, perhaps I could understand it. But that is not the case because Exeter, more than any other team bar Wasps, love getting the ball wide.

Yes, their forwards score more tries than any other team, as evidenced by the fact Luke Cowan-Dickie, Mitch Lees, Don Armand and Thomas Waldrom crossed for four of their six tries against Bath, but is that not just smart play?

Exeter simply have so many threats right across the park now that opposing teams are bound to leave gaps. I haven’t heard too many Exeter fans complaining about their side’s style of play and when I saw them beat Saracens at Allianz Park the other week, there was no shortage of ambition in their play.

The Dutch invented ‘total football’ in the 1970s and, four decades on, Exeter’s brand of ‘total rugby’ is reaching New Zealand-esque levels.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.