It’s a landmark in the life of any young male: when the time comes to pack your bags, loosen the apron strings, and move out of home.
Away from your favourite spot on the sofa, the Spider-Man bed sheets you refuse to grow out of, and mum’s meat macaroni, which is – and will always be – the best thing you’ve ever tasted.
It’s an extremely exciting time, met with enthusiasm that for once you won’t be bound by the shackles of parental attention, and are free to do whatever you want, whenever you want.
However underneath this macho exterior is a hesitant, reluctant and scared boy, who knows that life will never again be as comfortable and easy as it has been until now.
Home will always be the place where you know everything is ok, where you can express yourself, be yourself, and have support around you when you need it most.
For the professional rugby player, playing at home carries a similar assuredness, where the ground is familiar and the crowd is always behind you, allowing you the confidence to play your natural game in an environment you are used to.
It’s reflected in results – sides win far more games at home than they do when they hit the road.
Last week, in Round 6 of the Super Rugby, all home teams were victorious, including the Force, who gave reigning champions the Chiefs their first loss of the season.
I’ve been impressed with the early form of the Force and believe there is something special brewing in the west, but doubt there would have been the same result if the game was played at the Chiefs’ Waikato Stadium in Hamilton.
It’s even more the case here in Europe, as teams such as Clermont in the Top 14, who have won a staggering 74 straight games at home, reiterate the advantage a team has when they perform on their own patch.
This is reinforced further by looking at teams’ poor record playing away from home – even those who sit in the top half of premiership tables.
Take Toulouse for example. A European heavyweight, winner of four Heineken Cups and 19 French titles, Toulouse have only managed one away win all season, against cellar-dwelling Biarritz, whose upcoming demotion to the second tier of French rugby was sealed last week.
In an era where professional sportspeople are in better physical and mental shape than ever and have coaching, medical and psychological support networks at their disposal, why are we seeing the same results?
What makes it so difficult to win away?
Whether you’re travelling halfway around the world, across the Tasman, or two kilometres up the Hume highway, your match-day routine is affected. You have to get up earlier, and may not have slept in your own bed.
You can’t go to your favourite cafe for the ‘usual’ game-day breakfast or have the luxury of knowing all the nifty back streets to avoid the plethora of parents sitting in traffic as they take their kids to weekend sport.
At the ground, your changing room is the size of a matchbox, the showers are cold, and the home supporters are into you the moment you step off the bus. The pitch is not as wide as your patch back home, and the in-goal area is half the size.
The referees decisions are influenced by the raucous pleading from the stands, as every 50-50 call seems to go against you.
What may seem trivial factors add to the pressure of performance. It’s a constant challenge for the player to remain mentally and physically focused. You have to deal with being out of your comfort zone.
It’s easy for the outsider to say “deal with it”, and they have every right to. It’s part of our job to overcome ridicule, criticism, and tough environments. If it were all plain sailing all of the time, rugby would be a pretty boring game to play or watch.
When the fixture list comes out each year, there are no surprises – yep, half of your games will be played away from home, and you have to be prepared.
Over the years I’ve been around experienced players, within teams that travel every fortnight, and picked up on a few things that help in the pursuit of getting that vital win away from home.
Embrace the challenge
There’s nothing worse than sitting in your hotel room, watching TV and playing PlayStation. Get outside, experience the culture and atmosphere of the place and enjoy being away from what you normally know.
We are so lucky as professional sportspeople to have the opportunity to travel, and have somebody else pay for it! So don’t waste the opportunity. In the context of our lives, rugby careers make up only a short space and it’s the nature of the game that a career can end at any moment with injury.
This helps with keeping your mind fresh, and not loaded with every little detail about the pending match. Especially on long tours, our love of the game is tested as it seems rugby is on our mind 24/7, so it’s important to escape.
Embrace the crowd, don’t challenge them, as this will give them more fuel.
Get the ref onside
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a coach mention “away-from-home mentality” in his pre-match chat when we are on the road. This requires a heightened focus on the fundamentals of the game plan, because every little mistake made away from home has greater consequences.
It’s about being squeaky clean at ruck time, doing the simple things well, and not giving the referee any penalty opportunities, as momentum is a huge factor away from home.
Starting better is always important, but even more so when you are away from home. Starting well silences the crowd and lays the platform for your team to build.
The crowd will have their moments and the opposition their purple patches, but being in front when this happens makes it a hell of a lot easier.
Feed off information from players who have been around the longest and have experienced hostile environments, as they will have a clearer understanding of what it takes to overcome the odds.
The pressure is on the home team
While everything may not be in your favour, the home team is the one expected to walk away victorious. Use this to your advantage by not being afraid to take risks and attack them.
It’s evident in a country like New Zealand, where the All Blacks were under immense pressure to perform and win the World Cup in 2011. They eventually overcame France in the final, but the first emotion felt when the final whistle blew was more relief than jubilation.
By no means does this guarantee success when away, but it ensures you are prepared and in the best mental state to have every chance. It also means you are not beaten before a ball is even kicked, which happens more often than it should.