Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

What is the problem with playing away?

Leicester's Welford Road is a notoriously tough venue for visiting teams – but it shouldn't be

I have been asked to give my thoughts on why 'home field advantage' seems crucial at the elite level of rugby, compared to other sports.

Many reading this piece, may notice that the home draw is all that is talked about in the Heineken Cup competition right now. And then there's the play-off series that brings the curtain down on the professional rugby season. Again, the match venues seem to be on everybody's mind.

Yet, such importance does not seem to be placed on home advantage in football, for instance. The benefits are the same though.

For example, players will be able to: sleep in their own beds; follow reassuringly familiar routines; not have to travel long distances before the match; know all the nooks and crannies of their stadium; and garner the support of their own fans.

There is also an evolutionary throwback at play here, for research has shown that, when playing at home, male players undergo a hormonal rush; an animal response to defending personal territory from invasion.

Then there is how match officials can be affected by the home support's reactions to their decisions. So, yes, playing at home has some advantages – but no more in rugby than in football.

So why the fuss?

Well, the cynic may say that the overemphasis on the need for a home draw in, let's say, the Heineken Cup, is to ensure that games such as tomorrow's encounter between Ulster and the Leicester Tigers is not seen as a dead rubber, but instead as a type of mini-cup final, with the prize, the Holy Grail of a much valued home draw.

You would assume that not as many fans would turn up at Welford Road tomorrow if simply making the quarter-finals was enough in itself – both teams have already qualified. But the home advantage card is played strongly and therefore a soap opera of sorts ensues.

With the 'dum, dum dum' drum beat of an EastEnders cliffhanger in the air, the stadium will be packed to the rafters to see who does what, and more importantly, who goes where!

All good for revenue you'd have to think.

Maybe all well and good. After all, sport is a business. But there is a big danger in over-egging the 'must-get-a-home-draw-at-all-costs' narrative.

You see, the advantages of a home draw are in fact minimal, and should never be hyped up.

It also implies that some controlling factor, outside of the players themselves, needs to be present to enable them to pull through. This is not useful.

Coaches should want their players to be self-contained units of physical, technical, tactical and mental control.

Playing on familiar ground, with home support, should only ever be seen as a nice little extra. But the best don't care where they play, because they are self-sufficient. They rely solely on themselves and, in a team, on each other.

The risk in believing that a home draw is crucial, is that a mentally untrained player may view playing away – against Toulon, for example – as an uphill battle of almost unconquerable proportions.

As a result he prepares with an air of futility and fate, and performs without his customary poise and brilliance, so often seen at home.

The irony then is that the player's belief about playing at an away venue is what really sabotages his performance – and not so much the opposition.

It is important, therefore, for rugby players not to be seduced by this home-away hype. For if they are, they risk setting themselves up for complacency at home, and failure away. Both potentially fatal.

My opinion, as a sport psychologist, is that they (and all athletes for that matter)need to run their performance from the inside.

That is, to become so mentally tough that they could be drawn against a Moon XV, away, and just get on with it! The most mentally strong sports performers only focus on their role on the pitch, track, court, course, or wherever.

They have a toolbox of effective mental game techniques and routines that enables them to reach their ideal performance state before they step out to compete, no matter where it is.

So, to all Heineken Cup warriors out there, remember this one thing at the weekend – the rugby ball doesn't know where it is!

It's only you who can place importance on the venue, whether it's in France, England or Northern Ireland. At the elite level, the key to success at home AND away lies where it always lay... between the ears of each and every one of you.

Dr Mark Elliott is a Sports Psychologist who has previously worked with Ulster Rugby

Ulster have travel sickness remedy

By Niall Crozier

With so much emphasis having been placed on the importance of a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup, one could be forgiven for believing that Ulster's away-day record in Europe is poor.

Not so.

In fact, in the past three seasons – during which they have well and truly exorcised their ghosts in England and France – Ulster have chalked up an excellent 66 per cent success rate on their travels.

Given that they had not won a match in England prior to January 2010, and that their first success on French soil came as recently as January 2013, that represents a remarkable upswing in their fortunes.

Having beaten Bath 28-10 in 2010, Ulster returned to the Rec to inflict a further defeat (26-22) on the hosts the following season. Similarly, having beaten Castres Olympique 9-8 at Stade Pierre Antoine last January, Ulster backed that up with a memorable 25-8 victory over Montpellier at Stade Yves du Manoir in October past.

Since October 2011, Ulster's away-day Heineken Cup results are:

2011-12: lost 20-9 to Leicester Tigers, beat Aironi 46-20, lost 19-15 to ASM Auvergne Clermont, beat Munster 22-16 (quarter-final), beat Edinburgh 22-19 (semi-final), Aviva Stadium), lost 42-14 (final, Twickenham).

2012-13: beat Glasgow Warriors 19-8, beat Northampton Saints 25-6, beat Castres Olympique 9-8, lost 27-16 to Saracens (quarter-final, Twickenham).

2013-14 (to date): beat Montpellier 25-8, beat Benetton Treviso 35-3.

This translates as played 12, won 8, lost 4, points for 257, against 192. In other words, a two-thirds success rate in matches played away from Ravenhill.

However, there is indisputable evidence that home advantage at the quarter-finals stage of the Heineken Cup is a very real factor. In 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09, three of the four home quarter-finalists won. In 2009-10 and 2010-11 all four of those with home advantage progressed.