Exeter Chiefs v Racing 92: A forensic analytical deep-dive into where the Heineken Champions Cup final will be won and lost

BT Sport's resident rugby analyst provides a forensic analysis on where Saturday's Champions Cup final will be won and lost as Exeter and Racing go in search of their maiden European title

Published: 17 October 2020 - 3.46pm

Joe Simmonds and Finn Russell will lock horns as Exeter Chiefs and Racing 92 do battle for European silverware

There will be a new name on the Heineken Champions Cup trophy when Exeter Chiefs and Racing 92 go toe-to-toe for the right to be crowned kings of Europe.

Racing 92 have been knocking on the door for years, the perennial bridesmaids and one of the best teams to have never won the title.

Having lost lost two of the last four finals, do they have enough this season to claim their maiden trophy?

Standing in their way are an Exeter team that had failed to make it past the last eight until this season despite outstanding form domestically for a number of years.

Will their lack of experience at this stage of the competition prove costly or will the Devonians finally translate their domestic dominance to success on the continent?

The data included in this is preview is the same level of detail that clubs and international teams use, providing BT Sport readers with a truly elite level of insight.

Here BT Sport's resident rugby analyst Ross Hamilton takes a look at how these two teams have matched up so far in the Champions Cup to get them to this stage, the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams, some key performers and how we might expect the game to pan out on the big day.

When do both teams tend to score?

Exeter are one of only four teams to have a positive points difference in every quarter of the match.

Their consistency is the bedrock of their success and this shows they are able to come away better off on the scoreboard right throughout the match.

Where they really excel, though, is immediately after half time.

Rob Baxter’s men have scored the most points in the 20 minutes following the break (78) and conceded the fewest (10), giving them the best points difference (+68) across the whole competition.

The next best side in this period are only half as good with a points difference of 34. Their overall points difference for the competition so far is an impressive 114, outscoring their opponents by 33 points across the eight games played to this point.

Racing 92 themselves have just one quarter where they have a negative point difference and it is only -2.

However, tellingly, this is the same quarter, just after half time, as Exeter’s best so could we see a huge swing early in the second half?

Racing’s could look to give themselves a big enough lead before the break with their best quarter being between 20-40 minutes where they have scored the most in the competition (93).

They also have the best points difference in this period (+61) with their closest rivals only managing +25 in the same period.

Playing styles

A statistic called ‘playmaker balance' helps provide a clear picture of each team's playing style.

This is a measure of where any particular phase of play receives its impetus or go forward. We measure a play off nine for anything one pass out from the ruck, in tight, not too expansive.

A play off 10 for anyone who drives the play from the first receiver channel, regardless of the number on his shirt.

Anything wider than that then becomes off 12 and to reiterate the impetus of the play is what’s being measured here.

A bulldozing run from an inside centre where his fly half has manipulated the defence to create a hole and passed him the ball into that hole is a play off 10.

At the moment the ball is in the fly halves hands he is able to make the decisions around that play and from his actions created the impetus. Yes, it may be an incredible run from the centre but that’s not the metric we are looking at here.

It may not come as a surprise that Racing play a lot off 10 (fly-half) with their unfettered stand-off Finn Russell at the reigns.

Relative to the total phases they have had this season in the Champions Cup (1,444) 32% of those plays have come off 10, the third most in the competition only behind Bath and Clermont.

They also play off 12 (inside centre) the least in the whole competition with just under 10% (9.7% to be exact) of their play stemming from anyone wider out than Russell at first receiver.

Exeter are not quite as extreme as Racing. They like to keep the ball in tight and play off nine (scrum-half) a lot, 59% of the time in fact.

This tends to suit their strengths with strong ball carries in the forwards and well drilled patterns to get over the gainline - but what’s unique to Exeter is what they do after that.

The Chiefs are real believers in the old saying of earning the right to go wide as once they get any success off nine, they almost bypass 10 entirely and get the ball wide as quickly and as much as possible.

Only two teams across the whole competition play off 12 more (16% of the time) than Exeter and that was their Premiership rivals Gloucester and Northampton. 

10 vs 10: Joe Simmonds vs Finn Russell

When any player has the ball in his hands, he has three options: run, kick or pass.

Working out how often a player chooses to one of the three provides a helpful insight into individual playing style.

Joe Simmonds, Exeter’s fly half and captain, has a very high pass ratio.

At 77%, it’s the highest of any fly half to have played in the Champions Cup this season.

This supports Exeter’s playmaker balance in that when Simmonds gets the ball in his hands, over three quarters of the time he passes it on.

Now, that isn’t to say he just stands and delivers but with these two metrics combined we get a decent picture that supports the idea of Exeter’s game plan of starting tight and going wide when it is on.

By contrast Russell, someone we know can create magic at any point, looked to kick the ball almost a quarter of the time he was in possession.

He also opted to run the ball once every five times, which means just under half of the time he is looking to take it upon himself to instigate the play.

Adding in the fact that 11 of his 123 passes in the competition have resulted directly in a try (4) or linebreak (7) we see just how integral Russell is to Racing’s offence.

Try threats

The try sources of a team are a very good way of seeing how teams want to attack and what their particular strengths are when it comes to getting over the whitewash.

There are six try sources that we split into two categories; lineout, scrum and restarts fit into ‘set piece and taps’, while turnovers and kick receipts fit into ‘broken play’.

For many years now Exeter have been associated with lineouts and maul tries – but that’s changing.

They are still very strong in that area but they’ve have added an extra element to their attacking arsenal and, as a result, are scoring a lot more from broken play.

Exeter have scored 14 tries from lineouts, just under double the competition average of 7.8 but they have scored the most tries in the competition from taps (7), with the next best managing just two.

In a clear shift from focussing on lineout and maul tries only, they avoid kicking to touch in favour of keeping the ball in hand in the opposition 22 and building their formidable phases to near the tryline.

They also however scored considerably above the league average for turnovers and kick receipts, so much so that they have exactly a 50/50 split of their tries coming from set piece and broken play attack.

Only two teams have scored more tries from broken play as a percentage of their total tries scored (Ospreys and La Rochelle).

Racing have a very similar split to Exeter – 52% set piece and 48% broken play - something we would expect from such an expansive, free flowing French side like the Parisians.

Where there approach differs to Exeter is that they have scored only one try from a tap comparted to Exeter’s seven, while their effectiveness off turnover (6) and kick receipt (7) is very impressive.

Exeter know they will have to be very careful giving the French giants any turnover ball. If they do, they will need to transition into their defensive structures quickly to mitigate the threat posed by Racing,

Try phases

This is a metric that allows us to see how long it takes a team to cross the whitewash by how many phases it takes them.

This is broken down into four categories with tries scored from one phase, two to three phases, four to six phases and seven or more.

This allow us to see if a side would be considered a “strike team” where they score highly on first phase or if a team is able to go “multi-phase”, maintaining possession and still converting on the scoreboard.

Exeter actually have both of those virtues, they have scored 11 tries on first phase in the competition, the MOST of any team.

They've also scored 10 times from possessions lasting longer than seven phases with only Leinster scoring more times from that multi-phase category and actually.

What that shows to us from an Exeter front is their initial attacking threat on the first phase.

In seasons gone by, because of their set-piece dependence, those first phase tries might have predominantly come directly from mauls.

This season however they have scored a grand total of zero tries from mauls.

When we consider their change in try sources what we can see then is both their launch plays (1st phase attack from set piece) and their transition attack (1st phase attack having received the ball immediately after defending) are gaining them huge success and resulting in tries.

Gone are the days when they are just trying to build phases and put as much pressure on the opposition as possible, their attacking structure is outstanding, incisive and clinical.

One might atone some of this change in mindset with the signing of Stuart Hogg, both with his strengths as a player influencing games on the pitch and in the decision to sign him in the first place.

In the Champions Cup this season Hogg has Exeter’s highest metres made with 409 (7th overall in the competition), second only to Jack Nowell (29) with defenders beaten, 24 in total and he has made more offloads than any other Exeter player with six.

What’s perhaps most impressive though for Exeter is they haven’t lost their DNA and the part of their game that served them so well up until this point.

They were able to add this element on top of their existing strength and we can see that they still have the ability to keep the ball and build pressure to score tries, it’s just now one part of their attacking arsenal.

That is not as easy as it may sound, and a huge credit has to go to the coaching staff in being able to upskill their team in this way!

For Racing we see something very different, for a star studded, electric, free flowing outfit they’ve only scored 5 tries on the first phase, 1.7 below the league average and actually improve in terms of their return as they go through the phases.

It’s quite unusual to see that uniform increase throughout the graph and especially if we take that relative to the league average trend, it predominantly decreases as we increase the phases with a slight spike for anything after 7.

Racing therefore clearly show they have the ability to maintain possession, be patient and convert after multi-phase rugby. The sublime Russell chip over to the top to Vakatawa in their semi-final versus Saracens that led to the Imhoff try occurred on the eighth phase.

They managed to position themselves and manipulate the defence perfectly in order for that bit of magic to pay off. They are not just a flash in the pan, ‘joue joue’ French side, there is some real purpose and substance behind them.

Exeter in the 'Red Zone'

Finally we can look at attacking and defensive outputs per game and a ranking across the competition to get another insight into a playing style of a team but really where their strengths and weaknesses lie and how opposition may combat that.

We’ll start with Exeter again and some of the standout stats indicate how pragmatic they are with their possession; they play very low risk rugby and try to maximise their output as much as possible.

Exeter have averaged the fewest turnovers per game (10.3), the second fewest offloads per game (4.8) and made the 3rd fewest kicks in play (18.3) in an attempt to maintain possession wherever possible.

Where they’ve changed again in recent years is, they aren’t just trying to play from everywhere so where they would be top of the stats for carries and metres made previously, they now sit very much middle of the road (9th and 8th respectively for those two metrics).

What they’ve now done this season is opt for ‘playing in the right areas’ first where whatever attacking output they can generate has a better chance of converting into points. In this season’s competition Exeter have had 68% of their total phases played in the opposition half (252 of them in absolute terms), 34% in the opposition 22 (251 in total).

The result of this is clear to see in their scoring return, 2nd most tries (per game remember) with 4.3 and 2nd most points scored with 31.5.

What we can do though is drill down slightly more into the areas of the pitch that count the most – the opposition 22 or the ‘Red Zone’.

Now statistically we can say that this area is the most important (and some of the metrics within) because we are able to correlate over 100 key criteria to the output of winning rugby matches.

What that means is that within a rugby game we can measure which criteria is most important to outperform your opposition and that will give you the best chance of winning.

The absolute number one most important criteria in a rugby match is your ‘Red Zone Efficiency’ – this is the amount of points (on average) you come away with every time you enter the opposition 22. Statistically we can see that if Team A has a higher Red Zone efficiency than Team B, Team A have gone on to win that match 70% of the time.

This metric is very closely followed, and linked to, ‘Points Scored from RZ Entries’ (68% correlation) – this may appear to be the same thing but efficiency measures the effectiveness per entry, this absolute number gives us a picture at the end of a match how many points were scored from RZ entries in total and is clearly important when the object is to outscore your opponents.

Exeter have both the best efficiency per Red Zone entry, scoring 2.54 points on average each time and the most points scored from all the entries they have managed within that game, 30.5. When we know these two metrics are the two most important to winning rugby matches, being the best in both across the top competition in Europe is a pretty good way to go about things. Exeter also have very high entries in the first place, 12.0 per game in 4th place and then keep the ball well within it resulting in a lot of phases, 31.4 in the RZ per game in 3rd and therefore exert a lot pressure on their opposition.

For Racing, you could argue how they go about their business is polar opposite to Exeter, they make a lot of turnovers 13.9 per game for just the 12th best, make the 8th most offloads with 8.3 per game and kick the ball a lot more, 23.3 times per game, the 6th most in the competition. There is clearly some risk/reward factor in there because they have the best gainline success (amount of carries over the gainline as a percentage of their total carries) 54% and collisions success (amount of dominant carries as a percentage of their total carries) 26%. They then make a lot of metres (438.1, 4th), line breaks (11.8, 4th) and defenders beaten (28.6, 3rd)  in every single game showing that their attacking output on paper is very high!

Racing actually get into the Red Zone more than Exeter, 13.4 times to Exeter’s 12.0 as previously mentioned but they aren’t able to score as many points as a final output. They still scored 25.3 points from their RZ entries and it’s the 3rd best overall, their efficiency is 1.89 per entry and the 5th best overall but when we’re comparing arguably the two best teams in Europe vying for the European crown, these differences become very important! Two very opposing attacking styles then and at the end of the match with Racing ‘only’ managing 3.6 tries per game in 4th place and 31.1 points in 3rd, it could be Exeter ahead on the score board at the final whistle.

Defensively we might say both these teams are perhaps a little ‘average’, they both only manage the 14th best tackle success with 85%, they very rarely attack the breakdown in defence; Exeter only managing 5.3 turnovers won per game (16th overall) and Racing 5.6 in 12th. Exeter have conceded 11.3 linebreaks per game, the 15th best (or 5th worst) and Racing concede a lot of offloads with 7.9 per game in 13th. Similarly to the attacking output however when all’s said and done Exeter have managed to average conceding fewer tries, 2.3 to 2.4 and conceded fewer points, 17.3 to 21.0. 

On paper then we might think that Exeter have the advantage going into this final but statistics are one thing, putting them onto the field in the highest pressure environment possible is another.

Rugby is never predictable and therefore never boring and we’ll all be tuning in at 4pm on Saturday for an enthralling 80 minutes to see who will be crowned champions of Europe for the first time.

Watch Exeter Chiefs v Racing 92 from 4pm on Saturday 17 October - live on BT Sport 2 HD and BT Sport Ultimate.