Legendary former Welsh and British & Irish Lions centre Scott Gibbs believes the selection of Kwagga Smith at number 8 for the Springboks first warmup test against Georgia indicates a bigger picture plan to compensate for the loss of Duane Vermeulen, writes Oliver Keohane.
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”.
Formerly a Springbok Sevens star, Smith stands below six foot tall and weighs under 100 kilograms. His size, or lack therefore, is not dissimilar from only Springbok eighthmen though, because you won’t easily find a number 8 in world rugby whose physical statistics read as such.
Luckily for the Springboks, Smith lacks in none of the toughness that comes coupled with his bigger positional counterparts. What he adds though, is phenomenal speed and a work rate and fitness that is incredibly hard for bigger players to achieve.
The Springboks find themselves in an interesting position with the absence of Duane Vermeulen. Vermeulen is a rugby playing anomaly of the last quarter century, to quote Gibbs again. Not only does he never stop going forward, both on attack and defence, he is one of the best players over the ball in world rugby and a safeguard under the highball both from kickoff and broken play. In his absence, the loss is far greater than that of pure brawn.
So replacing Vermeulen with a like-for-like player is a lot harder than it may appear on the surface. While the likes of the Du Preez brothers and Jasper Wiese share Vermeulen’s physical attributes on paper, do they tick all the other boxes on the field? Not quite, though this is not to say they don’t have their own unique attributes to offer.
What backing Kwagga Smith does, within the Springbok set-up, is potentially throw a spanner into the works for British & Irish Lions planning. It indicates that Jaqcues and Rassie are not necessarily set on picking a like-for-like physical replacement for Vermeulen, but potentially rotating various skillsets from their options at number eight.
Kwagga Smith will need hugely physical performances from his flankers to thrive at eight, but where he will thrive will be as a jackal over the ball, a tackler who will make ten+ tackles a game and an extra hand in loose play to link between the backs and forwards. The Du Preez brothers bring a combination of mobility and physicality as the most athletically gifted number eight options in the squad, as well as the added bonus of their heights which allows for lineout security and ensures offload options in contact.
With regards to Jasper Wiese, Gibbs spoke of him as being a revelation for Leicester but pointed to the guys up North knowing how he plays. This may mean that Wiese is utilised more as an impact player, in that his pure physical strength against tired legs can break open a game, regardless of whether or not the opposition knows whats coming.
Another possibility that the selection of Smith indicates is that the Springbok coaches are saving something special for the test series. By not picking the expected replacement for Duane, they could be shielding the next number eight from Gatland’s eyes. The power South Africa holds here is, nobody really knows who that next number eight is.
Dan or Jean-Luc Du Preez could come to the fore as starting options, Siya Kolisi has been utilised off the back before and there is no reason that a player of Pieter-Steph Du Toit’s calibre, with all the skills and physical attributes of an archetypal Springbok eighthmanm doesn’t step into the role. All the while Kwagga Smith roams as an illusive wild card, who breaks the Bok mould.
What is important to remember is that the loose trio functions as a unit, and this has been especially true in Springbok history. Regardless of what number the player runs onto the field with, South Africa have the privilege of producing loose forwards who have generally been able to play every one of the three back row positions. The 2021 Springboks are no different and I wouldn’t be surprised to see specific skillsets of individual players used at different positions across the loose trio, throughout matches and throughout the tour.
Much will change over the three tests, and one can be certain that as the series evolves, so will the Springboks loose-forward approach.
Watch: Kwagga Smith’s highlights