Kwagga Smith: Why South Africa’s bold choice is the smart one for Lions tour

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

At 280lbs, England’s Billy Vunipola is far heavier than any of the loose forwards representing the British and Irish Lions in South Africa.

But Vunipola isn’t in South Africa. Like the rest of us, he’ll be watching the first Test against the Springboks on TV as Warren Gatland opted for speed and mobility over power and strength in the back row.

This raised a few eyebrows in the Republic where rugby matches are traditionally won by the team that hits hardest. One senior journalist even accused Gatland of bringing hobbits to a land of giants. How ironic then that the hosts have been forced to adopt a similar strategy.

With Duane Vermeulen still recovering from ankle surgery, coach Jacques Nienaber was left with a dilemma at No 8. He could either select the inexperienced battering ram Jasper Wiese - Leicester Tigers’ breakthrough player of the year - or the fleet-footed Albertus ‘Kwagga’ Smith - a man shorter and lighter than South Africa’s fly-half Handre Pollard.

Conventional wisdom pointed towards the larger man. Nienaber chose a different path.

“If you look at Duane, he is a guy who can get momentum and stop momentum,” said Nienaber, who is taking charge of only his second Test having got off the mark against Georgia earlier this month.

“Kwagga does the same. He comes from a sevens background. He gets momentum with his evasion and skillset that he learned in sevens where they also have to handle big players. He gives us the same [as Vermeulen] but in a different style.”

Smith has scored 310 points for the Blitz Bokke - South Africa’s sevens team - and won a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. He has played just seven matches for the Springboks with only two appearances at the back of the scrum. He has however just completed a full season at No 8 in Japan, representing Yamaha Jubilo in the fast-paced Top League.

More importantly, Smith is seen as a disciple of Rassie Erasmsus and shares the now director of rugby’s attention to detail. This was evident in the documentary series ‘Chasing the Sun’, chronicling the Springboks’ World Cup win, in which Smith is seen doling out tactical advice to team-mates. It is also revealed that Smith was responsible for analysing video reels of the opposition to devise plans to counter their loose forwards.

Beyond bone-crunching tackles and go-forward ball in the carry, it is Vermeulen’s generalship that will be missed the most. In 2018, when South African were 24-3 down to England inside 20 minutes in Johannesburg, it was Vermeulen, and not new captain Siya Kolisi who rallied the troops with a rousing speech. When the Boks line is stretched, it is Vermeulen who serves as leader of the defence.

Rugby statisticians measure how many metres a player gained for his team with ball in hand. They do not record how those metres were made. And though Smith can’t bulldoze his way through would-be tacklers like his burly countryman, he has the ability to move around them.

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