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Trashing the 'trailer'

The 'trailer', or queue, at the back of a ruck or maul has become a common sight in South African rugby, but what exactly is it for and how long will it last?

The recent trend has become a source of frustration for some who do not enjoy seeing the game slowed down, as the laboriously constructed line of forwards bound loosely serves as a signal of the inevitable box kick that is to come from the scrumhalf.

It is a clear strategy that has been employed by teams such as the Springboks who are serious about gaining a territorial advantage and putting the opposition under pressure through a structured kicking game.

The set move is known in some coaching circles as the 'Venter trailer', as it is believed to have been first developed by former Saracens boss Brendan Venter when he was running (or kicking) things at Vicarage Road.

The thinking behind the 'trailer' is that it gives the scrumhalf more time and space to get extra hang-time on his high kick, whilst also giving the chasers time to get in position and ultimately contest for possession.

However, it also gives the opposition defence more time to align and can backfire as was shown in Durban last week when, despite carefully arranging his forwards in front of him, Francois Hougaard was still disrupted by the England forwards when trying to hoist some of his high balls.

The tactic has become a symbol of negativity for those who would prefer to see the Boks carry the ball more and gain territory through controlling possession, but it may soon be a thing of the past.

The IRB will be putting a new law on trial in the Currie Cup this year which will force teams to make the ball available within a five-second window, although this will then have to be approved before it can be applied at Test level.

This will eliminate the 'trailer' altogether, and will stop teams from deliberately slowing the pace of the game down as they 'organise' the next attacking phase – something which can also rob them of valuable momentum.

Hougaard came in for criticism last week for taking too long to get the ball out, but his performance was not helped by a pack that was beaten to the breakdown regularly in the first half, and it was their improved performance in this area that helped Ruan Pienaar provide such snappy service when he came on off the bench.

Hougaard is renowned for his dangerous running that made him such a threat as a wing replacement in the past, but he is playing to instruction and if he is to execute the Bok gameplan effectively then he needs to be given more protection by his forwards in order to develop confidence in his kicking game.

However, conversely, were Hougaard allowed a bit more freedom to express himself, he could end up becoming something of a hybrid version of Joost van der Westhuizen and Fourie du Preez – two of South Africa's greatest scrumhalves in the modern era.

Although his kicking game is not yet in the same league as Du Preez's, his ability to threaten around the fringes could prove devastating, especially considering Heyneke Meyer's love for big, ball-carrying loose forwards who could open up gaps for him to exploit.

The Springboks under Meyer are intent on dicating the pace of the game, and place a high value on structure, so there could be a few more 'trailers' on show in Johannesburg on Saturday, but it would be unfortunate if their game is thrown off course by a poorly-executed move as that will only give more ammunition to those who accuse them of being negative.

By Michael de Vries

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