Kwagga Smith has evolved into one of the most impactful players in South African rugby, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
What is it about the Lions’ environment that appears to bring out the best in previously unheralded players?
To cite just some examples, Warren Whiteley battled to establish himself as a youngster at the Sharks, but his professional evolution has seen him rise all the way to leading the Springboks.
Lionel Mapoe couldn’t find a home at the Cheetahs, Sharks or Bulls, but has risen to national prominence, and fellow Springbok Ruan Combrinck was feeling unwanted at Western Province when the Lions threw him a lifeline.
Then you come to Kwagga Smith. At the moment, the 24-year-old is playing some of the best rugby of his life, having made a seamless transition from sevens back to fifteens rugby.
Boasting explosive power, pure pace, and the natural skills befitting a backline player, Smith’s attributes make him a unique species of loose forward, and one who appears increasingly at home in the 15-man game.
Over the past few seasons, Smith has become widely regarded as one of the best sevens players on the world circuit, and has been central to the success of the Blitzboks during this time.
Smith’s loyalty and love for the sevens game is understandable when one considers that his unique talents were first recognised by SA Sevens academy coach Marius Schoeman and Blitzboks coach Neil Powell.
‘When I saw him at Craven Week, there were some who just couldn’t understand what we had identified in him,’ Schoeman recalled during a conversation we had towards the end of last year. ‘But he had fantastic aerial skills, and an incredible work rate, so we felt he could become something special, and look where he is now.'
Although Smith still has plans to feature for the Blitzboks down the line, there is a sense that his focus has begun to shift to fifteens, where his performances for the Lions in both the Currie Cup and Super Rugby have seen him beginning to be spoken of as a real Bok contender.
While Smith’s blistering pace is well-known – he made his Currie Cup debut on the wing after all – his wide-ranging skill set and raw strength also sets him apart.
Just this past weekend, Smith was like a Jack Russell searching for a bone as he burrowed away at the breakdowns against the Sharks, while his physicality in the tackle is clearly something he has worked on.
At 1.80m and around 90kg, Smith doesn’t fit the traditional mould of a hulking South African loose forward, but he has found a way to use his size to his advantage, while refusing to sacrifice pure pace by unnecessarily bulking up.
Make no mistake, he is a unique player who appears to have all the attributes to add great impact value at the highest level, with Smith having reiterated his desire to do whatever it takes to earn an opportunity with the Springboks.
Smith may have to bide his time when one considers that the Boks can continue to call on in-form flankers such as Siya Kolisi, Jean-Luc du Preez and Jaco Kriel, but there is no doubt that Kwagga has a real opportunity during the Super Rugby playoffs to force his way into the reckoning.
The dynamic loose forward has demonstrated his versatility recently by slotting in at blindside flank for the Lions – with Ruan Ackermann filling in for the injured Warren Whiteley at No 8 – and in due time, he is the sort of player who could serve as the Springboks’ surprise package (as his unusual name suggests).
In fact, for those who are wondering, this is where the name Kwagga comes from: ‘My brother gave me the name when I was just a baby,’ he told SA Rugby magazine. ‘A group of foreigners visited our family farm [just outside Lydenburg] and they asked my two-year-old brother what my name was. He only knew animal names, so he told them my name was Kwagga, and from there it just stuck.’
And by the looks of it, Kwagga could well be a Springbok before the end of the year.
Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix