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FEATURE Kwagga Smith: 'My work-rate rather than my size will define me'

Kwagga Smith: 'My work-rate rather than my size will define me'
2 months ago

Kwagga Smith spent his formative years on a farm near Lydenburg in the Mpumalanga province. While other teenagers were hitting weights and bulking up for the schoolboy rugby season, Smith was subjected to a more functional regime that would have lasting effects on his body and mind.

“Growing up on a farm, you have no choice but to tackle all sorts of challenges that you might not do in a city setting,” says the Springboks loose forward.

“I probably couldn’t bench press 80kg in a gym, but I was working in an intense environment, loading 50kg bags onto a 30-ton fertiliser truck, and Lucerne bales onto a tractor trailer whenever we went out into the field. That kind of work can strengthen your body, and particularly your hands, in a very different way. When you’re doing that for hours on end, it can shape your mindset.

“If we weren’t working, my brother and I were out hunting or fishing. There wasn’t a TV in the house or anything like that, so we were always looking for ways to stay busy.”

“The mental and physical attributes I gained from those experiences went on to shape my rugby career,” he adds.

“Early on, there were coaches who looked at me and said I was too small, or that I should be pushing bigger weights. What mattered was that I believed in my ability, and later, that a couple of coaches decided to give me a chance.”

Kwagga Smith
Smith initially made his name on the sevens circuit, winning Commonwealth gold and Olympics bronze with the Blitzboks (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Smith – 1.80m (5ft 11in) and 97kg (15st 4lb) – is not much bigger now than he was at the age of 16.

But a lengthy list of accolades – which include an Olympic bronze medal with the Blitzboks sevens team and back-to-back World Cup titles with the Boks – confirms there is more to Smith than meets the eye.

When Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber speak about warriors and ‘battle-stats’ – specific metrics that highlight work-rate, attitude and impact related to time on the field – they often cite Smith as the best example.

While the concept of battle-stats has been around for some time, it’s only in the wake of South Africa’s recent World Cup victories these metrics – and essentially players like Smith – have become widely appreciated and understood.

“It’s about a player’s effectiveness,” Erasmus explained in the docuseries Chasing the Sun 2, which aired in South Africa recently.

“How many seconds [does it take] for you to do something positive? The longer you take to do that again, the worse [the rating] is.”

I feel like it’s a good way to measure performance. I’ve never been the biggest player, and this way, I can be judged by what I do… From the outset, I said that my work-rate rather than my size will define me.

The overall stats for the 2023 World Cup make for interesting reading.

Very few Springboks rank among the tournament’s top performers. While Smith was one of the best defensive players across the knock-out stages, he did not crack the top 10 in any of the main categories.

The fact that he played 197 minutes across six games – at an average of 32 minutes per match – must be taken into account. It’s also worth noting that, in spite of a lack of game time, he won 10 turnovers over the course of the campaign, twice as many as the next-best stealer (Deon Fourie).

Further analysis suggests that Smith took his battle-rating to the next level in the play-offs.

In the final, Smith made five tackles and three turnovers against New Zealand in the space of 22 minutes. Against England in the semi-final, he joined RG Snyman, Ox Nché and other Bomb Squad veterans in spearheading South Africa’s fightback, completing four tackles and one turnover.

Smith’s most significant cameo, however, was in the quarter-final against France, where he was deployed from the bench in the 52nd minute.

Kwagga Smith
Smith made a huge impact after coming on for the final half-an-hour of the Boks’ quarter-final win over France (Photo Emmanuel Dunand / AFP) (Photo Emmanuel Dumand /AFP via Getty Images)

In one period of 300 seconds, he made 18 metres with ball in hand, completed six tackles and made two crucial turnovers. When Smith attacked an isolated Cameron Woki at the breakdown in the 68th minute, he gave Handré Pollard the opportunity to boot South Africa into the semi-finals.

“I’m used to the demands, in a sense,” he explains. “Clubs also use battle-stats, and as a foreigner who has been playing for the Shizuoka Blue Revs in Japan for seven years, I’m expected to make as much of an impact as possible.

“I feel like it’s a good way to measure performance. I’ve never been the biggest player, and this way, I can be judged by what I do.

“Not much has changed in that respect. From the outset, I said that my work-rate rather than my size will define me.”

I had two offers, one from the Lions and one from the Bulls. The guy at the Bulls said that I was too small to make it at professional level. My dad laughed and said, ‘That’s fine then, we’ll go to the Lions’

Back in 2013, Neil Powell and Marius Schoeman launched the South African sevens academy and contracted players that were deemed surplus to requirements – read too small for professional rugby – by the respective South African unions.

Cheslin Kolbe, Werner Kok and Justin Geduld were drafted into the system. All three went on to win a bronze medal with the Blitzboks at the 2016 Olympic Games. Kolbe also represented the Stormers and Toulouse, before becoming a regular starter for the Boks in 2018.

Smith was one of the first players in South Africa to have a dual contract, spending half of the year with the national sevens side and the other half with the Lions.

“Initially, I had two offers, one from the Lions and one from the Bulls,” he remembers. “The guy at the Bulls said that I was too small to make it at professional level. My dad laughed and said, ‘That’s fine then, we’ll go to the Lions’.”

By 2014, a rugby revolution was at hand. The Lions had returned to Super Rugby after a year in the wilderness, and coaches Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin were building a team with the potential to challenge South Africa’s status quo.

Smith slotted right into a group that was more obsessed with results than appearances.

“I loved sevens, but I felt that it was important to get my foot in the door in the 15-man code. I was honest with coach Neil Powell about my ambitions. I wanted to play at the 2016 Olympics, and beyond that, I wanted to have a crack at making the Springboks team.

Kwagga Smith
Smith (right) enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2017 with the Lions but was sent off in the Super Rugby final against Crusaders (Photo Christiaan Kotze/AFP via Getty Images)

“Johan Ackermann brought me up from the juniors and backed me to play in the 2015 Currie Cup, which we eventually won. That gave me some belief. Over the next few years, I learned a lot from playing alongside Jaco Kriel and Warren Whiteley, smaller players like me who use their skill to compete at the highest level.

“It was a special team, and I was part of the side that played in two Super Rugby finals. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make the most of that final in Johannesburg, and I got that red card.”

The Lions dominated the competition in 2017 and hosted the Crusaders at Ellis Park for the decider.

Smith went into that final determined to make an impact. After mistiming a tackle on Crusaders full-back David Havili in the 38th minute, he was sent off.

I look back now and think about how that red card – or rather the reaction to that red card – tested me as a person, and eventually made me stronger

Afterwards, Crusaders coach Scott Robertson admitted that the travel as well as the attitude had taken its toll on the visiting side. If not for that red card, the Lions may beaten a tiring Crusaders outfit, and lifted the title.

Robertson’s words offered small consolation to the Lions – and Smith in particular, who copped a four-week ban for that reckless offence.

“I look back now and think about how that red card – or rather the reaction to that red card – tested me as a person, and eventually made me stronger,” Smith says.

“I played for the Barbarians against the All Blacks later that year and won man of the match. It was another turning point for me. I felt like I had come through a challenging time and was enjoying my rugby again.”

The Boks, by contrast, were in freefall.

Record losses to New Zealand and Ireland were followed by a damaging defeat by Wales in Cardiff. A couple of months later, Erasmus returned to South Africa to replace Allister Coetzee as head coach.

Kwagga Smith
Smith’s Springboks debut ended in defeat by Wales but his second cap against New Zealand in 2019 established him in the squad (Photo Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

Opportunity knocked for Smith after he was picked for the first game of Erasmus’ tenure: a one-off Test against Wales in Washington DC.

The Boks suffered yet another loss to Wales, and in a largely makeshift side, Smith failed to impress. What followed was another period of soul-searching.

“I was so desperate to make my chance count. Rassie had backed me, and I didn’t want to let him down. Maybe I tried to do too much. I didn’t realise how much faster Test rugby would be in comparison to club rugby.

“After that, I missed out on selection for the England series, the Rugby Championship, and the tour to Europe. I started to think, have I blown my chance?

“It’s an honour to win one cap for the Boks, but I wanted more. I wanted people to remember me as someone who played regularly for South Africa, someone who made a lasting contribution. I didn’t want to be a pub question or a footnote.”

Smith put his head down and played his heart out for his club in Japan. In 2019, he got a call from Erasmus. Siya Kolisi was out with a serious knee injury, and the Boks needed cover on the openside flank.

Erasmus rotated his squad over the course of the 2019 Rugby Championship, fielding a second-string combination against Australia in Johannesburg and then a full-strength side against the All Blacks in Wellington. To the surprise of many, including the player himself, Smith was backed to start against New Zealand, and in the big matches that followed. The Boks went on to win the Rugby Championship title for the first time since 2009.

“I went to the World Cup thereafter, and even though I didn’t play in the play-offs, I felt like I was part of the group,” says Smith. “I got to know what the team and Rassie wanted from me.”

Every week, I’d asked Cobus Reinach for advice on where to stand when covering at scrum-half, or someone in the back three for help with my positioning if I’m on the wing. Communication is so important at that level

Erasmus was hailed for his bold and innovative strategies in the wake of South Africa’s triumph in Japan.

Many criticised his decision to field six forwards on the bench, as they felt it gave the powerful Boks pack an unfair advantage. The flipside of that tactic, of course, was the risk associated with selecting only two backline reserves.

Frans Steyn provided the Boks with a versatile option on the bench, as he had the skills and experience to cover all the backline positions bar scrum-half. What the Boks lacked at that stage – at least in their matchday squad – was a player with the speed and physicality to move between the forwards and backs.

After the Boks returned to Test rugby in 2021, Smith received more opportunities across several positions. Injuries to regular starters provided him with the chance to bank more game time and gain more experience.

As a result, he improved his chances of selection for the 2023 World Cup, and gave the coaches reason to believe than another bold selection strategy would work.

Kwagga Smith
Smith made another big impact in South Africa’s RWC final win over New Zealand, including three turnovers (Photo Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2023, Erasmus and Nienaber fielded seven forwards on the bench for the first time, in a one-off Test against New Zealand at Twickenham in the build-up to the World Cup.

The Boks won by a record 28-point margin, and in the aftermath, there was a lot of chat about the bench dynamic, and how Smith – an established loose forward – had finished the game on the wing.

“I don’t think people realise how much your team-mates prepare you for that kind of role,” he said.

“Every week, I’d asked Cobus Reinach for advice on where to stand when covering at scrum-half, or someone in the back three for help with my positioning if I’m on the wing. Communication is so important at that level, and luckily for me, my team-mates were very clear about what they needed me to do.”

Should one player shoulder such responsibility, especially at a World Cup tournament where the stakes are so high?

There may have been an outcry over the selection strategy if the Boks had lost one of those knockout matches in France. Some critics may have revisited the old, out-dated adage that you don’t select players out of position.

Smith’s response to this scenario speaks volumes for how far the game has come – and how attitudes have changed in South Africa.

It’s not about your size or the number on your back, it’s about what you do on the field that counts.

“Johan Ackermann game me my first chance at the Lions, and from that moment, I was determined to make the most of it. When I was selected for the Boks, my mindset shifted again.

“I’d grown up hearing that most coaches wanted a flank that was 1.97m (6ft 5in) and 110kgs (17st 4in), and there I was at 1.80m and 90-odd kilos.

“Rassie looked past the stereotype and told me that he had my back. My reaction to that was, OK, I’m going to make sure you never regret that decision. I’m going to make you proud.

“That was my attitude going into the 2023 World Cup. Maybe we’ve moved past the size debate, and now some people are starting to say that I should settle in one position. But my view hasn’t changed.

“It’s not about your size or the number on your back, it’s about what you do on the field that counts.”

And all told, Smith’s contributions have made the world of difference for South Africa.

Comments

2 Comments
L
Louis 80 days ago

Most underrated player in world rugby.

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