South Belfast’s latest rugby pitch is a hit with Ulster team players, yet groundskeepers won’t have to worry about keeping it up to standard. A new Virtual Reality pitch has been developed at Queen’s University by psychology professors, which is hoped will improve player technique for those who use it.

The cyberspace stadium has been developed in the Movement Innovation Lab at the PEC beside Botanic Gardens. Professor of Psychology Cathy Craig and colleagues developed it over the last two years, with the help of both Ulster team stars and visiting players from the French National League. By reading a running rugby player’s body signals - an important aspect in trying to take them down - the virtual pitch presents virtual opponents which those using the device can practise against.

Explaining the purpose of the new system, Professor Craig said: “In both the natural and the sporting world, the movement of the body is used to deceive. Whether it’s a lion chasing a zebra or a defender trying to catch an attacker on a rugby pitch, deceptive movement helps to gain a competitive advantage and beat an opponent.

“The side-step in rugby is an excellent example of how an attacker uses the movement of the body to trick a defender into thinking they’re going in one direction when they really intend to go in the opposite direction.

“It’s fair to say that the top players are less easy to fool. The less experienced players are more likely to be taken in by deceptive movement but the professionals focus on what we call honest signals – what the opposing player’s body is doing, rather than the clever footwork.”

Analysing data from the system, the team have discovered how the colour of team strips can affect how opponents are perceived.

“Our findings in this latest research suggest that what a player wears could make a difference.

“Colour could have an effect. For example a team that wears an all-black strip but fluorescent boots, could attract attention away from the honest signals, such as the pelvis area and towards the deceptive signals such as the placement of the foot.”

The work is part-funded by the European Research Council, as part of an overall project into how the human brain interprets signals.