The altitude on the Highveld of South Africa might not decide games, but it does get in the heads of visiting teams, according to Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins.
Connacht were the latest team to make the long journey to Pretoria in South Africa to face the Bulls in Loftus Versfeld. It was not a successful trip to the Highveld for the visitors, who return to Galway this week for a date with Leinster off the back of a 53-27 defeat.
While factors including the heat played a role in Connacht's performance, the impact of the altitude cannot be understated. Loftus famously sits at 1350m above sea level, a point that the Bulls make clear with a sign above the tunnel as the players run out onto the pitch.
In addition to those mind games before kick-off, the locals too play their part in emphasising the struggles most visiting teams face in the thinner air at altitude.
The mental impact of playing at altitude
While it might not have been successful for his side, Wilkins explained how he and his team approached the challenge of playing a match more than a kilometre above where the Sporstground is perched.
"Probably the biggest thing we had to address going in is just the mental aspect of how you get your mindset around all the narrative," Wilkins said on Wednesday Night Rugby.
"As soon as you set foot in South Africa, especially in Joburg [Johannesburg], Pretoria or Bloemfontein, all the locals are telling you how difficult it is.
"All the stories from former players or guys who have played their previously. So, we were really honest with it. We talked about it before we started the trip, we talked about it while we were over there.
"It does have an effect, certainly in terms of the players five or 10 minutes in they feel as if they've played 40 or 50 minutes, and then they get a second wind that normally sees them through to half time.
"As long as they know that's coming, I think that helps with it."
Getting the strategy right
Wilkins admitted that there are different strategies that he needed to think about when facing the climb to the Highveld.
"Also, knowing you're probably going to use your bench a little bit earlier," Wilkins said. "We went with a 6-2 bench to give us the extra forward.
"So, there's things you can do in advance. The ball travels slightly different in the air. It obviously travels further when you kick long, it stays up a bit longer when you kick contestables, so the back three and the forwards in terms of their restart catches, that's something they have to get used to.
"So, it is different. I don't think it decides games, but it certainly has an impact in terms of how you approach it. Our strategy was just to talk about it as openly as possible, and then embrace the challenge."
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