From the mag: Kwagga’s positive outlook

Japan-based Kwagga Smith made the most of a challenging situation as coronavirus wreaked havoc, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine.

*This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine, which is now on sale.

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For Smith, Japan has become something of a second home. He has been playing for the Yamaha Jubilo in the Japanese Top League since 2018, and he spent nine weeks in the country last year as part of the Springboks’ World Cup squad that won the Webb Ellis trophy.

Yet, when SA Rugby magazine caught up with Smith towards the end of March, the global game was in a state of flux as almost every sports tournament was cancelled or suspended die to coronavirus.

For those such as Smith – based overseas and away from family when travel bans began to be enforced – it was a particularly uncertain time. And yet, with the sort of courage and conviction he so often demonstrates on the rugby field, he remained steadfast in calmly facing the challenges.

‘I really enjoy playing in Japan. Thankfully my club is situated in the countryside and it’s quite similar to where I grew up in South Africa. Normally us foreigners would head to a river and get a braai going. That’s something we enjoy and it’s bit different to the guys in the big cities, where they all stay in flats. Of course, it’s changed quite a bit due to concerns over the virus and now we try to avoid going to Tokyo or Osaka because those are the main areas where everything happens. We’re grateful it’s a bit quieter where we are and that we’ve been able to train and keep busy.’

Adding to the unprecedented circumstances was the fact all Top League fixtures scheduled for March were already suspended after a Red Dolphins player was arrested for alleged illegal drug use. ‘We had been working on preventative measures together with all the Top League teams but they were insufficient. As a result we have betrayed our fans and society, and we must work diligently to restore trust,’ a league statement read.

At that stage in early March, the competition had already been postponed for two weeks to deal with the outbreak of coronavirus in response to a request by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It all added to a period of uncertainty for club-bound players left in limbo until it was finally confirmed on 23 March that the remainder of the Top League season would be called off in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

‘It was a scary time,’ Smith admits. ‘Everything is shutting down and of course you’re worried that something happens and you can’t get back to South Africa. In times like these you want to be close to family. And even when I get back I’ll have to go into self-isolation for two weeks and just take the necessary precautions.’

As if to validate this point, just a couple of days after our chat with Smith, his wife Ilke headed back to South Africa before him. She was met by the surreal sights of an airport and aeroplane that were mostly empty. Smith remained club-bound until eventually the belated announcement confirmed the Top League would not resume.

Indeed, during this uncertain period in March, many players based overseas remained subject to club training despite wanting to return home to their families. It was a situation complicated by the unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 outbreak.

‘As is the case locally, national governments make recommendations on how they want industries and citizens to deal with Covid-19,’ said MyPlayers CEO Eugene Henning in mid-March. ‘It is then up to the employers to decide how they will implement those recommendations. This will vary from country to country, but since the players are still employed by their clubs, although they may not be training or playing, they are bound by what those national governments decide and how their employers choose to approach those recommendations.’

It left players such as Smith trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

‘There’s a lot of stuff to do here if you know the right places and you need to make the most of it. We try to keep busy and when we play away games in some of the areas where there are a lot of South African players, we normally meet up after the game or stay over and enjoy that time together. I’ve visited guys like Duane Vermeulen, Malcolm Marx and Willie Britz, and then there are others such as Wimpie van der Walt, Lourens Erasmus and Jacques van Rooyen. We try to get to each other. We recently had a weekend off and some of us went to the mountains and were able to do some snowboarding and see Mount Fuji.’

And after all this time in his ‘second home’, how is his Japanese coming along? He laughs when asked this question: ‘It’s a very difficult language to learn. We’re trying to do what we can but the best way is to spend time here and hear it being spoken. We’ve tried to pick up what we can.’

Eventually, conversation shifts to some rugby. After all, just a few months ago Smith was celebrating in Yokohama as the Springboks powered to the World Cup title against the odds. For Smith, it was also the culmination of a rather remarkable personal journey.

With the former Blitzboks superstar having shifted his focus to fifteens, he achieved a lifelong dream when he made his Springbok debut in a one-off Test against Wales in Washington on 2 June 2018. However, a largely second-string side suffered an inauspicious defeat and while Smith had found his way on to the national radar, he didn’t feature for the Springboks again that year.

There was always a bigger picture in mind, though, and the abrasive flank says he knew exactly where he stood and what he needed to do to break back into the Springboks’ playing squad.

‘When I made my debut two years back in Washington, the coaches told me they just wanted me to keep playing the same brand of rugby I did with the Lions and in Japan. They were extremely honest with me about what was expected. To come from sevens and to be able to break into the Springbok side was a great honour.’

Coming off an outstanding Super Rugby season last year – where he top-scored for the Lions with seven tries in 11 matches – the 26-year-old was rewarded with a start in the Rugby Championship as the Boks secured a draw against the All Blacks in Wellington and he featured twice against Argentina.

Ultimately, when it comes to Springbok selection, one of the fundamental attributes the coaches look for is a player who has something different. Call it an X factor, or any other term you like, but Rassie Erasmus has always been a big fan of players with courage, high work rate and an unquantifiable strength that sets them apart. As a former sevens player with unique attributes, Smith fit the bill.

‘Overall, I think he is energetic. He is opportunistic and a ball-player,’ Erasmus said before selecting Smith to face the All Blacks. ‘He has a big engine on him. Obviously he is not one of the biggest guys but if you take people like Sam Cane and those kinds of players, he matches them size-wise. He has a big heart and is a great team man and I think what he does on attack and defence matches any other player in Super Rugby.’

Despite immense competition for the Springboks’ few back-row berths, Smith duly earned World Cup inclusion. Although he would only start two pool games, against lowly Namibia and Canada, the Boks championed the importance of a complete squad effort on the way to claiming the Webb Ellis trophy for the third time.

‘It was amazing for me to get into the squad at the beginning of the Rugby Championship; that’s where it all started to build up,’ Smith reflects. ‘It can be difficult if you’re not in the team every week but we had a great squad spirit. Schalk Brits brought great energy and we did our best to prepare the team for each opposition during training. The sessions were intense, but also lots of fun.

‘To end the journey by lifting the World Cup was so special. Then you get back home and the reality hits you. We got off the plane at OR Tambo airport and went on the trophy tour; that’s when you see how everyone was united and how much it meant to everyone in South Africa. You look back and see that you’ve made a difference in the bigger picture.’

And although no one can be certain what the future holds for the game, it’s memories such as these that will last a lifetime.

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Craig Lewis