In the absence of Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Kwagga Smith has stepped in and stepped up, and began to redefine the role of an archetypical Springbok blindside flank. It appears that he is finally coming into his own in the Test arena, writes Oliver Keohane.
The Springboks have been dealt some heavy injury blows intermittently throughout 2021. First and most notably was the absence of World Cup winner Duane Vermeulen for the entire British & Irish Lions series.
Smith started at number 8 in the Springboks’ opening Test against the Lions and struggled to emulate the type of eighthman display that would have been expected of Vermeulen. For all his industry, he appeared to be lacking in the height and weight to be combative at number 8.
Jasper Wiese replaced him at the back of the scrum in the following two Tests, but Smith remained a part of the wider 23 and was utilised throughout the Springboks series winning campaign as a loose forward replacement after Pieter-Steph Du Toit suffered an injury early into the second Test.
It was in the Rugby Championship where Smith got an extended run in the starting XV, and it was on the blindside flank that the qualities seen in him by Bok coach Jacques Nienaber perhaps began to shine through to the general public a little more.
Brought in to replace Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Smith was not asked to try and play like him, but rather formed part of an adjusted system that allowed him the freedom to be impactful in his own way. Where South African blindside flankers have generally been selected as big, ball carrying, lineout options, Smith’s run of performances began to redefine the position in the context of this Springbok side.
Complemented by the return of Duane Vermeulen at number 8 and the consistently courageous and abrasive performances from captain Siya Kolisi, Smith was given the physical buffer to implement his disruptive and dynamic style of play and it proved hugely useful for the Springboks against the All Blacks, where he was everywhere at once over both Tests.
Before the British & Lions series, Welsh and Lions legend Scott Gibbs was vocal in expressing his appreciation of Kwagga’s attributes. After speaking with Gibbs we ran a piece titled “Wild card Kwagga indicates a trick up the sleeve”, detailing the impact he may be able to offer the Boks given his different skillset:
Speaking on the MoneyMan show for SA Rugby Magazine, Gibbs pointed out that if you had to line up every Springbok number 8 to have ever played professionally, Kwagga Smith is a glaring deviation in stature and style from his predecessors and contemporaries. “Which by no means makes him less potent”, says Gibbs, “I love the fact that he’s there, he’s my kind of player”.
As Smith has been allowed more freedom on the flank, his feel for Test rugby appears to have been on a constant trajectory up. On Saturday, as the Springboks beat Wales in Cardiff for the first time in eight years, Nick Mallett conclude that Kwagga had his best game in a Springbok jersey.
Also read: Mallett: Kwagga’s best game in Bok jersey
Over the 80 minutes Smith made 11 tackles, broke through two, made 43 meters in seven carries, won a turnover, secured lineout ball and stopped Welsh momentum with a strip tackle to secure the Springboks back possession. Smith was effective in every facet of play, but was especially good in playing towards the ball in a close-quarters game dictated to by torrid conditions.
How good was Kwagga on Saturday!?pic.twitter.com/g7n9nYOxrj
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) November 8, 2021
It must be acknowledged that the physical nature of Vermeulen and Kolisi, who have been superb, contribute hugely to Kwagga’s ability to effect such change at the breakdown and move with freedom around the field, but as with all positions in rugby an individual thrives as a member of a unit that is functioning well.
The unit is functioning differently to the one that won the World Cup, but it is firing, and the fact that Kwagga Smith continues to grow in stature next to his other loose forwards is a huge positive in providing the Springboks with comfort at flank and flexibility and variation in their style.
— Mark Keohane (@mark_keohane) November 6, 2021
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