Kwagga’s a rare breed

Kwagga Smith’s sevens stint has made him a better 15-a-side player, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

He has a name that raises eyebrows, but increasingly, it’s Kwagga Smith’s performances in the sevens and 15-man game that are catching the attention of observers.

Albertus Stephanus Smith might be his given name, but the Lions flanker has gone by the nickname ‘Kwagga’ virtually since birth.

‘My brother gave me the name,’ he says with a laugh in reference to the Afrikaans word for ‘quagga’ – an extinct sub-species of zebra. ‘A group of foreigners visited our family farm [in Lydenburg] when I was a baby 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.’

This anecdote made for a light-hearted start to our conversation when SA Rugby magazine caught up with Smith during a break in training during the early rounds of the Currie Cup.

For more reasons than one, this rare breed of player has made a name for himself on the sevens circuit, while also quickly becoming a valued member of the Golden Lions’ Currie Cup squad.

It was during his matric year at HTS Middelburg in 2011 that Smith’s prodigious talents were first spotted by SA Sevens academy coach Marius Schoeman and head coach of the national sevens side, Neil Powell. Smith was recruited to the academy after school, taking up a dual contract that enabled him to play his junior rugby at the Lions.

He would go on to enjoy a memorable debut in the Sevens World Series in 2013, forming part of the Blitzboks side that secured victory in their home tournament in Port Elizabeth, while he was also part of the squad that won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

‘Those were special experiences,’ he reflects. ‘I have such a passion for sevens rugby, and it’s really helped my fitness level when it comes to playing 15s. It’s improved my conditioning and helped me maintain a higher focus during the game, which is something that can be affected when you get tired.

‘I think my vision as a player has also improved, and being able to identify that space in sevens is something I can bring to the 15-man game.’

Interestingly, Smith’s versatility, speed and X factor saw him make his debut as a wing replacement during last year’s Currie Cup, but it’s predominantly at flank where he continues to make an impact.

‘Openside flank is my best position. I love playing to the   ball, and within the Lions’ set-up I have the freedom to play my natural game. I did make my Currie Cup debut on the wing, and obviously I’d play anywhere I’m needed, but I really enjoy my role at openside.’

At 1.80m tall and 90kg, Smith doesn’t fit the traditional mould of a hulking South African loose forward, but he doesn’t see this as a disadvantage.

‘I’m not the biggest guy, but my speed and agility are my strengths. I don’t think my size is a negative thing as long as I’m quick enough. Hopefully I can be quicker to the ball, and quicker to get off the ground on defence.

‘I don’t think I need to go and put on all this extra weight,’ he adds. ‘I’m at 90kg and I think that’s my ideal weight to have that balance between speed and strength. And I really don’t want to lose my speed, especially with my aim to focus on the sevens code next year.’

This falls in line with Smith’s ambition to form part of the Springbok Sevens squad that will travel to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

‘The experience at the Commonwealth Games was something you can’t really describe, and now I can’t wait to go to the Olympics. Getting to that event is going to be my big goal next year, but after that, my focus will be on the 15-man game. It’s a dream of mine to one day play for the Boks, and that’s something I want to work towards.’

Boasting explosive power, raw pace, and the natural stepping and handling skills of a sevens player, Smith’s attributes make him a unique species of loose forward, but his development as a 15s player is only really just beginning.

‘It does require quite an adjustment playing sevens rugby and then coming back to 15s – they are very different – but I love both forms of the game,’ he says. ‘In the Lions’ set-up, everyone is allowed to play with freedom, and I love that. If I see a gap, I want to be able to take it; to play the situation and express myself.’

– This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Craig Lewis