Kwagga Smith was having a season to remember until this happened, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Kwagga Smith was concussed when Jaco Peyper showed him that red card.
The Lions flank had chased Elton Jantjies’ high kick and accidentally collided with David Havili, who had leapt into the air to catch the ball.
The Crusaders fullback landed dangerously on his head and shoulders, giving the South African referee little choice but to send Smith off in the 38th minute of the Super Rugby final at Ellis Park.
‘When Elton kicked, I saw there were no chasers on my outside,’ Smith tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘There were a lot of players in front of me, so I looked up at the ball rather than straight ahead. I couldn’t see who was coming at me from the Crusaders. When I looked ahead again, Havili was already in the air and it was too late for me to stop.
‘I watched the incident after the game and Jaco probably made the right decision. The law says if a player falls badly, it’s a red card. But I wouldn’t have been able to continue playing in the final, even if it had been a yellow, as I suffered a concussion when I landed. That’s why I stayed down on the ground.’
Smith had to watch the rest of the match from the sidelines, as the 14-man Lions went down 25-17 despite a brave second-half performance. Afterwards, he came face to face with Peyper again.
‘I have a good reputation with referees, as I like to play the game hard but clean,’ says the 24-year-old. ‘Jaco knows I wouldn’t intentionally take a player out in the air. He told me he felt very bad about giving me a red card because he knew it was an accident, but he had no choice because of how Havili fell. Havili actually fell on to his own player [Jordan Taufua], but it was my influence that caused it. Jaco said if Havili had landed on his feet or backside it probably wouldn’t have even been a yellow card.’
Then Lions coach Johan Ackermann was adamant Smith should not have received red. He also doesn’t believe the flank deserved a four-week ban.
‘It was harsh,’ says Ackermann. ‘The foul play review committee didn’t take into account the fact Havili also made contact with a teammate in the air on his way down.
‘It could have been handled differently on the field. It did look bad, and obviously it is the responsibility of the chasing player to protect the man in the air, but could Kwagga have stopped earlier? No.
‘Rugby is a contact sport and players will always go all-out to contest the ball, and once they are there, they can’t just disappear.
‘I also don’t think we should look at how the player falls, but at the intention of the other player who was contesting the ball. Considering it was a final, a better option would have been a yellow card. And if a player has to be red-carded for something that was unintentional, then the law should allow for him to be replaced, so it remains 15 on 15.’
Ackermann comforted Smith after the final and told him he wasn’t to blame for the loss.
‘I really felt for him. I told him we wouldn’t judge him as we all make mistakes, and we still loved him and respected him for what he had done for us during the season. I told him that in my view it was an accident and unintentional. We also started the final poorly as a team, conceding two tries.’
Smith had been outstanding for the Lions until that red card. Having played for the Blitzboks in the first four tournaments of the 2016-17 World Rugby Sevens Series, he only joined up with the Lions in February. Ackermann’s plan was to ease him back into Super Rugby, so he would be on the bench for seven of their first eight matches.
It was only when Jaco Kriel got injured before the tour of Australia that Smith became a regular starter.
‘I always want to start and play the full 80 minutes, but coach Ackers had a plan for me, and playing off the bench helped me get used to Super Rugby again,’ he says. ‘Jaco’s injury gave me the chance to prove I can play for 80 minutes, and I wanted to make the most of it.’
He did, starting the Lions’ next five matches in the No 6 jersey and being named Man of the Match in the big wins against the Bulls and Kings at Ellis Park. When Warren Whiteley was injured while on Springbok duty in June, Ackermann rejigged his loose trio, with the fit-again Kriel at No 6, Smith at 7 and Ruan Ackermann at 8.
‘Jaco and I play well together and I enjoy playing with him,’ says Smith. ‘In the modern game, you can play two fetchers. We would alternate, so if Jaco was a bit tired he would play blindside and myself openside. We have the ability to adapt. When I played blindside I enjoyed running more with the ball in space against backline players, while at 6, I would be focused on getting to the first ruck and playing towards the ball.’
‘We wanted Kwagga to play what he saw as a No 7,’ says Ackermann. ‘If he wanted to contest the ball on the deck or slow it down, he could, and if he saw space with ball in hand he could attack it.’
Smith picked up another Man of the Match award while playing blindside in the Lions’ last match of the league stage against the Sharks at Kings Park. He also had a big impact in their quarter-final and semi-final wins against the Sharks and Hurricanes, respectively, so losing him halfway through the final was a massive blow for himself and the team.
Smith would suffer a second setback that day when his name was missing from the Springboks’ Rugby Championship squad.
‘I was disappointed,’ he admits. ‘I want to play for the Boks, in the green and gold, and I want to go to the 2019 World Cup. But this was my first full Super Rugby season for the Lions, so I’m just happy people are talking about me as a Bok contender. I also chatted to coach Allister [Coetzee] during the week of the Test against France [at Ellis Park in June]. He told me I had been playing very well and that I must just keep on doing what I’m doing.’
Ackermann says Smith has all the attributes to excel at the highest level, but there are aspects of his game he can work on to improve his chances of selection.
‘Kwagga’s speed is one of his biggest strengths. He is quick enough to play for the Blitzboks and an exceptionally fast loose forward in the 15-man game. He can break tackles, despite his size [94kg, 1.80m], has great skills with ball in hand and the ability to spot space and beat his opponent. Kwagga has benefited from playing sevens, and not just in terms of his skill level. Sevens players also have to be good at the breakdown; contesting and protecting ball.
‘However, Kwagga is sometimes so focused on chasing the ball that he will try to contest every ruck, instead of staying out and forming part of the defence. There are times when he can wait for an opportunity to attack the ruck after the third or fourth phase, when the attacking team has less support.
‘Kwagga made a lot of one-on-one tackles this season, but sometimes, instead of dominating the tackle he would look to steal the ball and allow the ball-carrier to get over the advantage line. He needs to know when to hit the ball-carrier and stop him dead, instead of riding the wave to contest the ball.’
Smith is well aware of these shortcomings and plans to use the Currie Cup to become an even better player. If he does, a place in the Bok squad for the end-of-year tour could be his reward. If not, he will shift his focus back to sevens for the next few months.
‘I will again play the first four tournaments of the Sevens Series,’ he says. ‘My Blitzboks contract ends next year, but I will definitely make myself available for all the major sevens events like the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games.
‘I could consider a stint in Japan during the Currie Cup at some stage, but that would depend on a few factors, including where I stand with the Springboks. If I’m part of coach Allister’s plans, I will stay in South Africa to give myself the best chance of playing for my country.’
KWAGGA ON HIS FAMILY FARM
‘Our farm is in Mpumalanga, between Lydenburg and Ohrigstad. My dad and I grew up there and it’s been in our family for 50 years. My dad runs the farm with my brother’s help. We are corn, wheat and soya bean farmers and started farming buffalo two years ago. It’s amazing for me to take food to them and sit on the bakkie while they are eating. You realise how small you are in the world and how great God is. The farm is about 300km from Joburg, so if I want to get away from rugby I can go there for the weekend to clear my head and when I return to training on Monday, I feel fresh. I will definitely go back to the farm when I retire from rugby. I’m already doing some of my own farming there that my dad keeps an eye on.’
– This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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