Gerry Thornley: Leinster’s home advantage inevitably diluted at a quiet Aviva

If there was a good time for likes of Munster to visit headquarters it’s surely now

Speaking to the media the week before last, Johann van Graan was asked if playing out the reconfigured Guinness Pro14 endgame at the Aviva Stadium would be an advantage for Leinster.

As to be expected of any coach in his position, van Graan noted that Leinster play most of their big games in the Aviva and that, potentially including a semi-final and final: “They’ll essentially have four home games.”

However, while he said Leinster “might” have an advantage, the Munster head coach did note that in contrast to the 50,000 sell-out the last time Munster played Leinster in the Aviva, this time there would only be 170 people.

While van Graan did not go so far as to say it, clearly the absence of supporters seriously dilutes whatever home advantage Leinster may have when they meet Munster at the Aviva on August 22nd.

Put another way, meeting Leinster behind closed doors at the Aviva Stadium has to be preferable and advantageous to Munster, Ulster and Saracens, whom Leo Cullen’s men meet in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals. This will also apply to whoever else takes on Cullen’s hitherto unbeaten side this season in the Guinness Pro14 semi-finals or any further knock-out games.

Sure, Leinster will have a little more familiarity with the surrounds of the stadium and the games will be in their home city, but this is nothing compared to the lack of supporters, for it is the wave of noise generated by near on 50,000 fans at the ground which underlines home advantage.

At Thomond Park, Munster ride that crest of a wave as well as anyone, and the other obvious and advantageous factor in a team playing at home is the degree to which a partisan home crowd can influence referees and their assistants.

Statistically, home advantage is more pronounced in rugby than, say, football. For example, in one study analysing the pool matches in the European Champions Cup over a 15-year period, 65 per cent of all matches in the sample analysed resulted in home wins, while 64 per cent of yellow cards were awarded to the away team.

The degree to which home advantage counts is almost identical in the Six Nations where, again, the ratio of home wins is almost two to one.

In the first 20 years of the Six Nations, 62 per cent of the matches were won by the home sides. Only 37 per cent of wins were achieved by teams away from home, and over a third of those 112 victories, 40, were against Italy. In other words, the ratio of away wins drops further when Italians games are removed from the equation.

Bonus point

Six Nations sides are also twice as likely to score four tries at home and secure a bonus point. At home, the losing team earned a bonus point 44 per cent of the time, compared to 28 per cent for teams beaten away.

In domestic leagues, especially in the Top 14, these ratios go up again. Now this may in part be due to coaches occasionally sending out weaker teams on the road and targeting home games, as is also more likely to happen in the Pro14 and Premiership than in Test rugby.

Even so, the degree to which French teams have a defeatist attitude to away games, whereas they are full of fire and brimstone for home games, has driven many an overseas player mad, so much so that Trevor Brennan once let rip at his Toulouse players.

An equally mystified Sergio Parisse, who spent most of his career at Stade Francais, once observed: “Players live differently in away matches. The week before at home they were like lions. Away they are like mice!”

But, obviously, if there were no crowds that would be a completely different ball game.

Of course, there is no statistical evidence to compare games played in front of huge sell-out attendances and behind closed doors, although significantly when it comes to rugby, the winning ratio of home teams drops at club level.

The only available data is, of course, football, where the Bundesliga and Premier League both resumed and finished their seasons without fans present. In the first few weeks after the resumption of the Bundesliga, the home side was half as likely to win as it was before the shutdown.

Before the shutdown, home advantage in the Premier League was also very similar to the Bundesliga – 44.8 per cent home wins, 25.0 per cent draws and 30.2 per cent away wins.

Post-lockdown, in actual fact the figures didn’t change unduly at all, ultimately levelling out at something similar again, with 46 per cent home wins, 21.7 per cent draws and 31.5 per cent away wins.

However, like the Bundesliga, the ratio of home wins dipped dramatically in the first few weeks of matches behind closed doors, as teams and officials adjusted to life without supporters. In the first 26 games after the restart, there were ten home wins, six draws and ten away ways. Of course, this is too small a sample to draw any firm conclusions, and, who knows, maybe the increased use of piped-in supporters chants and roars had an effect?

Winning ratio

However, while the sight of an away team getting a penalty at Old Trafford remained as rare as hen’s teeth, rugby officials are perhaps even more influenced by crowds given so many more decisions are down to their interpretation.

In any event, the advantage of playing at home will surely be diluted for Leinster, and that could be beneficial for the all the away sides, not least Munster. In their 14 treks to Dublin to play Leinster, starting with that seminal Heineken Cup semi-final in 2009, Munster have won one and lost 13.

They have lost eight and won one at the revamped Aviva, when Ian Keatley augmented tries by James Cronin and Robin Copeland in 2014 with one of his own in a Man of the Match 21-point haul.

Otherwise, in 19 Pro14 games at the Aviva, Leinster have won 18 of them. Over the last three seasons, they’ve played 44 home games in either the Aviva or the RDS, winning 41, drawing one and lost two, for a 93 per cent winning ratio at home. Mind you, their 72 per cent winning ratio away from home isn’t too shabby either.

But all that was with their fans shouting them on. Hence, Leinster will still be favourites in every game they play when rugby resumes, but if there was a good time to take them on in the Aviva, it’s surely now.