Exeter Chiefs have made their sixth consecutive Premiership final

Credit: Camerasport/Getty Images

None of the Exeter Chiefs quartet picked by Warren Gatland will represent the British and Irish Lions next weekend at Murrayfield. They have a more immediate assignment. 

Exeter’s sixth consecutive Premiership final awaits and, win or lose against Harlequins, it is a reasonable assumption that Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill, Sam Simmonds and Stuart Hogg will be nursing hangovers when Gatland’s side gets underway on Sunday. 

That said, a bruising semi-final meeting with Sale Sharks will have interested the Lions coaches greatly. Alex Sanderson fielded four members of South Africa’s 46-man squad in tighthead prop Coenie Oosthuizen, lock Jean-Luc du Preez (listed as a utility forward by the Springboks), back-rower Dan du Preez and scrum-half Faf de Klerk. Sale also boasted the Curry twins and a mountainous centre partnership of Manu Tuilagi and Rohan Janse van Rensburg.

Because of that, Chiefs starters Cowan-Dickie, Hill and Simmonds were given a more than worthwhile work-out in the context of the Lions tour. Indeed, their steely performances and collective synergy will have impressed Gatland. Exeter were without Dave Ewers, Jacques Vermeulen and Sam Skinner – three brawny henchmen that have allowed Simmonds to shine in the past. And yet, their pack proved decisive in a 40-30 win.

Asserting authority

The selection of Hill for the Lions raised eyebrows given more illustrious locks such as Ireland’s James Ryan were omitted. The 27-year-old only has nine caps, but Gatland clearly sees something he likes.

Hill is a specialist tighthead lock, meaning that he scrummages behind tighthead props. Here, in the opening seconds of Saturday’s semi-final, the 27-year-old binds between Harry Williams and Cowan-Dickie:

On a technical point, Hill will be helped by the fact that Exeter scrummage in a similar fashion to Robin McBryde’s Leinster. As these sides set up for the set piece, their flankers and locks keep both knees on the ground to minimise movement:

Ironically, McBryde, also the Lions’ forwards coach, imparted this ploy after Sanderson’s Saracens hijacked Leinster in the 2020 Champions Cup quarter-final. Anyway, it works. Here, Hill helps Williams and Cowan-Dickie bully a penalty: 

Exeter scrum

Ebullient celebrations from Cowan-Dickie became a familiar sight on Saturday. Visibly pumped-up, he marked every little victory on the field.

Hill was still scrummaging on Exeter’s tighthead side in the final five minutes. At this set piece, he bolstered youngster Marcus Street and helped earn another penalty:

Back to the game’s opening exchanges, then. Exeter kick for touch and move the ball into midfield from a five-man lineout. Jack Maunder feeds first-receiver Ollie Devoto, who has Sam Simmonds and Jannes Kirsten to his right.

Look at the four Sale defenders opposite them – Ben Curry, Tom Curry, Rob du Preez and Manu Tuilagi. There is an obvious place to probe: 

It is actually a subtle mistake from Tom Curry, who joins brother Ben in jamming on to Devoto when he does not have to, that allows Simmonds to hit a gap to Du Preez’s right:

That chink is all he needs. Simmonds spins away and fights for every metre, even bouncing off the floor after the initial tackle is not completed:

Exeter Chiefs Sam Simmonds midfield

On the next phase, Cowan-Dickie’s off-the-ball running is vital. He bolts all the way from the lineout around the corner of this breakdown and holds out his hands as though he will receive the pass. Crucially, this deception fixes Tom Curry.

As Sale’s remaining defenders on the near side jam in, Exeter’s entire backline sweeps towards the touchline:

Henry Slade drops off a delicious pass behind Jack Nowell to Joe Simmonds…

…and the Exeter fly-half is behind their opponents with both wings, Tom O’Flaherty and Alex Cuthbert, for company:

The opposition 22 is the domain of Chiefs forward, but they do not adopt their notorious pick-and-go routine until within five metres of the try-line. Until then, there is some room to manoeuvre. 

Track Hill here. First, he supports a Cowan-Dickie carry:

Seconds later, having peeled himself from the breakdown, he heads towards the far touchline as Sam Simmonds wriggles over the gain-line:

Now, Gatland has picked a number of forwards that are comfortable in the 15-metre channels. Hill enjoys a rumble out wide, and gets one here:

Exeter Chiefs Hill wide

Soon afterwards, on the back of a penalty earned by possession and pressure, Cowan-Dickie surges over the line with Hill latching on:

Each of these Chiefs has had question marks raised over their Lions selection. Hill gave away a couple of costly, avoidable penalties during the Six Nations and suffered a concentration lapse on Saturday when Sale gathered a restart to score:

Cowan-Dickie’s lineout throwing is not perceived to be as strong as that of either Jamie George and Ken Owens. Gatland will have to think carefully about back-row balance to accommodate Sam Simmonds. But there can be no doubting the value and form of these Chiefs.

Defensive dynamism

Maul defence is an area in which the Lions will have to excel, and Hill turned up at a crucial juncture this weekend. Trailing 22-13, Sharks scented a big opportunity on the verge of half-time. 

Curtis Langdon finds Cobus Wiese from this close-range lineout. Hill stays down…

…and shunts towards the ball…

…before reaching over with Kirsten to grab hold of Langdon, who has joined the tail:

What happens next incenses De Klerk, but Hill is clever. He keeps his left arm on Langdon the whole time, even as he swings his body around the ball-carrier and appears to change his bind. 

Exeter win a scrum put-in. Cue more celebrations:

Exeter Chiefs maul defence

The explanation from referee Tom Foley is that Sale brought the maul to ground first. He tells De Klerk that he did not see Hill’s change of bind either.

Just after half-time, it is Cowan-Dickie’s turn to derail Sale’s lineout platform. The hooker begins in the tail-gunner slot as Langdon finds Dan du Preez. Jonny Gray does not turn quickly enough to lift Hill…

…so Sale secure the ball and look to establish a maul…

…before Ben Curry bounces away. Cowan-Dickie does not commit:

Instead, he waits for the pass to Tom Curry and swoops as Kirsten makes the tackle to force another penalty:

Exeter Chiefs – LCD turnover

Ben Curry believes he has reached the tackle-area and formed a ruck before Cowan-Dickie’s jackal, but Foley explains that “a clear lift of the ball” led him to penalise the ball-carrier.

Twenty minutes later came another significant moment with Exeter’s three Lions working together to foil Sale.

This sequence starts with Cowan-Dickie scrapping to slow down a Sharks ruck. Hill and Simmonds back into the front line of defence…

…and push up together as Raffi Quirke feeds Jono Ross:

Simmonds tears into contact, lassoing Ross low…

…and Hill clatters over the top:

Sale lose five metres. Then, on the next phase after the visitors bounce to the blindside, a trademark chop-tackle from Cowan-Dickie on Wiese leads to a mightily messy ruck.

Again, there is an argument that Exeter should be penalised – Ben Moon’s entry looks to be from the side and Sam Simmonds does not always support his bodyweight – but Foley rewards the hosts’ aggressive counter-rucking:

Exeter Chiefs counter-ruck

Although he did not add to his dizzying tally of tries this season, Simmonds senior was quietly excellent.

Different sides of Simmonds

The lineout jumping of Simmonds is not a trait that the Lions will lean on. However, Exeter’s fourth try demonstrated the worth of a surprise set-piece target.

Exeter call a full, seven-man lineout and station Simmonds at the front. They establish a maul and drive very briefly, but this is just a ruse. 

They want to attack Sale’s backline and, specifically, how narrowly they defend. A kick from Joe Simmonds outflanks Sharks and Nowell scores:

This is the scene just as Maunder moves the ball away from the maul. Blindside wing Byron McGuigan is close to the near touchline in the back-field with scrum-half De Klerk up flat. 

Because wing Arron Reed is jamming in – he is in line with the near goal-post – Sale full-back Simon Hammersley is leaving space in behind him as well:

Minutes later came another moment that underlined Simmonds’ resourcefulness. The number eight is stationed in the back-field as Nowell gathers a box-kick:

Now, carrying after an in-field pass that comes from close to a touchline is a very difficult task because heavy defenders have time to line up attackers and swarm towards them. The Lions will have to do a great deal of this in South Africa.

Ewers often takes on the job for Exeter. In this case, though, Simmonds steps up. He uses his footwork to jink and spin inside Jono Ross and Jean-Luc du Preez – two muscular tacklers – before powering through the challenge of Valery Morozov. From a tough position, Chiefs win the gain-line:

Exeter Chiefs – Simmonds carry off edge

Of course, Lions coaches will be heartened by Simmonds’ sleeves-up graft. But, above all, they will want him to be able to exhibit his point of difference – explosive athleticism – out in South Africa.

At the end of an exhausting game, we got a glimpse of this. Simmonds starts in the scrum-half slot from this lineout. Look at the defenders at the tail of Sale’s set piece: tighthead prop James Harper and hooker Ewan Ashman:

After Hill gathers the throw, Simmonds steps in to help establish a maul before darting away, throwing a dummy and surging between Harper and Ashman up to halfway:

Exeter Chiefs – Simmonds lineout

On previous tours, Gatland has made a point of starting every member of the travelling party in one of the first three matches. When he unleashes Simmonds, Hill and Cowan-Dickie in South Africa, they will be ready.

Match images courtesy of BT Sport