Super Rugby

From Rio to Ellis Park: Kwagga's big year

Kwagga Smith (Gallo Images)
Kwagga Smith (Gallo Images)

Johannesburg - This time, last year, Kwagga Smith was preparing for the biggest moment of his rugby career as Sevens made its debut at the Olympic Games. 

A key member of coach Neil Powell's squad, Smith and the rest of the Blitzboks went on to win a bronze medal in Rio.

While that was not the result they wanted, the contribution was still a significant one to Team South Africa's eventual haul of 10 medals. 

Smith had been a part of the Sevens set-up since 2013 and while he turned out for the Golden Lions in the Currie Cup along the way, Sevens was the priority in the years leading up to Rio. 

His unique blend of pace, strength and a ferocious defensive ability made him a crucial member of the Blitzboks set-up, but once the Olympics were over, Smith decided that it was time to put the focus back on 15-man rugby. 

The then-23-year-old was included in the Lions' pre-season plans, but there was a general acceptance that it would take him a while to acclimatize to the intensity of Super Rugby. 

That was not to be, and instead Smith used his opportunities off the bench to immediately demonstrate that his ability to influence matches was not limited to Sevens. 

Smith still has the pace and strength that made him such a big asset on the Sevens circuit, but in the Lions pack he has shown an ability to win the ball from seemingly impossible situations - on the ground and in contact. 

His work-rate and fitness are also impressive, and as the Lions experienced injuries to first Jaco Kriel and then captain Warren Whiteley during regular season, Smith's versatility saw him emerge as the logical replacement in the loose trio. 

Now, he will line up in Saturday's Super Rugby final against the Crusaders in front of 62 000 people at Ellis Park in the number seven jersey. 

Smith, who has been involved in every Lions match this season, is no stranger to playing in front of big crowd. 

As part of the Blitzboks, he got to experience the electric atmosphere of 50 000 fans at Cape Town Stadium once a year. 

"You can't hear anything, but if you're focused you can read the guys lips and you know what they're going to do," he said of playing in front of his home fans on the Sevens stage. 

For a number of players in this Lions side, this will be their first experience of a truly massive crowd.

"We should channel our energy in the right way and into the right spaces," Smith said.

"It also helps that we've played a season with these guys."

As is the case in most cup finals, the battle of the forwards is expected to have a major say on Saturday, especially given the All Black-heavy Crusaders pack. 

It is a huge Test, and Smith has very limited experience against New Zealand sides in Super Rugby having not played in 2016. 

But, so far this year, he has been fantastic and has even worked himself into the Springbok conversation. 

"Playing in a team like this where everyone is performing makes it a lot easier," he said.

"It was great to get my first full Super Rugby season. I had three Currie Cup seasons, so I know everybody."

And while Sevens and 15s may be worlds apart in terms of what happens on the field, Smith struggles to find many differences in team culture between the Blitzboks and the Lions.

"I don't think there is a big difference. There is a big brotherhood here and it is the same there," he said.

"The players care about each other, the coach cares about the players and that helps because then the players want to play for the coach.

"Coach Johan gave a lot to the system and to the Lions. We can only do our best and we will for him. Win or lose, he has respect for us. We just want to give our all for the last time."

Kick-off on Saturday is at 16:00.

Follow Sport24 journalist @LloydBurnard on Twitter...

Teams:

Lions

15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen

Substitutes: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza

Crusaders

15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody

Substitutes: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge

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