With the Rugby World Cup now finished, Irish rugby fans will be turning their attention back to the performances of their respective provinces in the Pro 14 competition. For me this is a somewhat happy change of pace from Ireland’s disappointing World Cup performance because Munster are riding high at the top of their conference and just off the back of three recent victories against Cardiff, Ospreys, and Ulster. However, previous to these three games Munster suffered a heavy 40-16 defeat at the hands of the Toyota Cheetahs. I thought this result was noteworthy because the Cheetahs also managed to batter Ulster 63-26 last month. I initially thought that the Cheetahs must have just been improving at an incredible rate from last season but then I started reading some articles regarding the Cheetahs’ suspiciously prolific home form.
The Toyota Cheetahs are a South-African rugby team based in Bloemfontein which play their home games in the Free State Stadium. What’s interesting about Bloemfontein is that it is located at an altitude of 1,395 m (4,577 ft) above sea level. To give this some perspective, Cork City is located at around 10 m above sea level. The issue with this is that teams who live and play at much lower altitudes to the Cheetahs, like Munster, find it difficult to acclimatise to playing when they go to Bloemfontein. The high altitude means that there is less oxygen, and this means players struggle with breathing which impacts on their performance. The high-altitude levels where the Cheetahs play their home games is largely considered to be the reason their home form is so good. It also explains why they recently beat Munster by 24 points at home despite failing to even score at Thomond Park last year.
To see how much truth was in this whole thing I took to data. I got the results of all the Cheetahs 2018/2019 Pro 14 matches (21 games) and compared their home and away performances.
In total the Cheetahs only won 8 games that season and 6 of these were at home. Not only did 75% of their wins come from their home matches but they score on average nearly 17 more points a game when playing at home. Obviously, the Cheetahs’ players are acclimatised to the high altitude which gives them an advantage over their travelling rivals. It’s incredible to see how much influence geography can have over a team’s performance. However, does the question of fairness not have to be asked in this situation? Does this home advantage not distort a lot of the results in the Pro 14 competition just because players are out of breathe when they travel to Bloemfontein?