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Ulster must master mind games when facing 'home side' Leinster

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 12/05/2016

Ulster coach Les Kiss
Ulster coach Les Kiss

New York Yankee great Yogi Berra once said that "baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical".

And while the legendary catcher's maths may not add up, Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss has already spoken about how important mindset will be for his side's semi-final trip to face Leinster in the RDS.

As the Pro12 play-offs enter their sixth year, still no team has ever triumphed in an away semi-final while Ulster have endured plenty of recent heartache against their southern neighbours in the biggest of games.

"We know we are going to Leinster's home patch," said Kiss after watching his side win their fourth game in a row against Ospreys last weekend. "The prep around that has got to be important. Having our mindset right, that's what will maintain our momentum.

"If we go there and we can't deliver a performance, we'll be very disappointed. If we deliver a good performance and Leinster are good enough to get it, we can probably live with that but we've got to be strong."

But why is the issue of playing at home so important, especially when it comes to knock-out rugby? Leading Northern Ireland sports psychologist Dr Mark Elliott, who has worked with a host of star names including Rory Best and Tommy Bowe, states that home advantage is only imperative if the visiting side believe it to be so.

"With the semi-finals of the Guinness Pro12 play-offs starting in just eight days, the talk has been, and continues to be, about the almost neurotic need for a home draw, as it is seen as a passport to the final," said the author of 'Facing Frankenstein' and 'Secrets of the Mentally Tough Athlete'.

"This narrative is a fairy story, unless, of course, the away team, or a critical mass of the away team, believes it to be true.

"If a sufficient number of the Ulster team believe at the outset that Leinster hold the lever of victory by playing on their own patch, then the outcome is a done deal... Leinster will win.

"The belief will shape Ulster players' interpretations of certain situations as they unfold during the match.

"So if, for example, Ulster are five points up with five minutes to go, some players may begin to doubt their or the team's ability to see the game out as the 'home teams always win these contests', that 'Leinster are always dangerous when their backs are against the wall', that 'we've been here before, but still lost' and so on.... until they talk themselves out of the win." For Elliott (below), such behaviour becomes something of self-fulfilling prophecy and sport is littered with many examples.

The Manchester United teams of Sir Alex Ferguson turned late goals into an art-form, with the All Blacks another who, while also possessing the most talent, seem to will themselves over the line even when things are not going according to plan.

"How many times do we see in sport that it's an established belief that's the game changer," Elliott added. "That it triggers an alteration in the power balance during a crucial moment in a match. There are many examples, but perhaps Ireland's 2013 loss to the All Blacks is one such instance.

"There was a time when no one believed that a mile could be run in under four minutes. The unshakeable belief was shattered by Roger Bannister's accomplishment, and so much so that other athletes began to alter their attitudes towards the possibility of also breaking the once unbreakable four minute barrier. And lo and behold they followed Bannister's record breaking ways not long after.

"With Bannister and the four minute mile, the time wasn't the real barrier: the belief that it couldn't be broken was. He refused to buckle under the weight of mass opinion. And so must Ulster." For Elliott, the narrative is there to be altered.

• ULSTER have been handed a boost for their Guinness Pro12 hopes with the news that Leinster's star flanker Josh van der Flier has been ruled out for the rest of the season.

The 23-year-old has an ankle injury that means he misses next Friday's semi-final showdown with Les Kiss' men at the RDS.

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