Tri Nations Travel Arrangements – Fair Or Foul?


Hardly a season goes by without us hearing about how South African teams are at a disadvantage in the Super 14 and Tri Nations rugby tournaments because of travel arrangements. But why should this be? After all, both competitions feature a mixture of home and away matches, so at first glance it would appear all even. But this is such a constant refrain that I have to check it out myself, once and for all.

The argument seems to centre on two factors: length of tour and jet lag. (Interestingly, when it comes to matters of unfair advantage, South Africa never seem to complain about matches played on the Highveld – at altitude – which supposedly favours them! But since that isn’t strictly about travel arrangements, let’s ignore it for now). Also, since this article is concerned with the Tri Nations competition, I’ll ignore the Super 14 in the analysis. But presumably the same conclusions apply to both competitions.

Jet lag
Jet lag is defined as the cumulative physiological and psychological effects of rapid air travel across multiple time zones. This disruption of an individual’s “body clock” results in the following symptoms:

changes in blood pressure and heart rate
losses in reaction time and coordination
mood swings

It’s not hard to see how many of these factors can have a detrimental effect on the performance of rugby players! Generally, travelling from west to east is considered worse because you effectively lose time, whereas you gain time going in the opposite direction. And it normally takes a day per time zone to fully recover from the effects of jet lag. So when you consider that all of South Africa is on GMT time, Australia is GMT+10, but is so big that the west coast is 2 hours earlier, and New Zealand is GMT+12, it is clear that jet lag is going to have an effect when teams usually have a week or less to acclimatise.

Length of tours
Touring takes a toll on players due to a number of factors:

away from family and friends
out of normal routine
very regimented living, due to security arrangements
constant close proximity to team mates
pressure to win
little local support

Some of these factors (for example, pressure to win) are present whether on tour or not, but they tend to become magnified in a tour environment because it’s impossible to escape. The hypothesis is that they take a greater toll on the players the longer the tour goes on.

To see if one team is affected more than others, let’s assign some numbers to these factors, with the 2009 Tri Nations fixtures in mind:

-1 for every time zone crossed
+1 for each potential recovery day, up to a maximum of a week if no previous fixture dictates when a team travels
-1 for the first week on tour, -2 for the second week, and so on

The team with the lowest cumulative score is the one at the biggest disadvantage.

Using this method, the results are:

All Blacks -4
Wallabies -6
Springboks -6

Perhaps this analysis is too simplistic (for instance my model doesn’t differentiate between the direction of travel), or I’ve assigned the wrong weightings to the different factors, but interestingly no team seems to be disadvantaged more than the others; although if anything the All Blacks have it slightly easier than the other two. I suspect that the same analysis done for previous years’ fixtures will reveal similar results.

Perhaps having longer tours is not the disadvantage it’s made out to be. After all, it gives the players longer to acclimatise!

Whatever the reality though, as long as the players believe they’re at a disadvantage, they probably are! This is where the intangible mental aspects of team performance come into play, which is one of the things that makes following the Tri Nations (or any other rugby competition for that matter) so interesting!