Bok coach Jacques Nienaber says Kwagga Smith will bring different skills at eighthman, but believes it’s not actually all that dissimilar to what Duane Vermeulen offered in the role, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
There can be no escaping the fact that Vermeulen’s absence due to injury is a massive blow for Boks, with the man of the match from the World Cup final only having an “outside chance” of possibly recovering for the latter stages of the Test series against the British & Irish Lions.
The Springbok coaches always aim to focus on solutions rather than problems, but Vermeulen is about as close as it gets to an irreplaceable player.
He is a leader, defensive organiser, powerful ball-carrier, lineout option, breakdown threat, formidable defender and an expert at safely receiving kick-offs and then effectively carrying the ball over the gainline.
With that in mind, it was always going to be interesting to see who the Boks selected to step into the No 8 vacancy.
Initially, most expected Marcell Coetzee, Jasper Wiese or Dan du Preez to be the leading contenders, particularly considering Smith was not widely viewed as an out-and-out No 8.
However, the Bok coaches often like to think outside the box, and with Smith having spent the most of the season in the Japanese Top League playing primarily at eighthman, his stocks suddenly rose at just the right time.
The former sevens players is never going to offer the sort of physical presence that Vermeulen possesses, but his work rate, mobility, as well as ability to use his speed and step to wrongfoot defenders make him somewhat of a secret weapon.
The fact that Smith started at No 8 in the Springboks’ recent warm-up match against Georgia was the first indication that he was in the plans to feature in this position against the Lions.
Any way you look at it, though, it is a massive call for a Test of this magnitude, but it also speaks to the Springboks’ theme of maintaining continuity by backing players who were part of the World Cup squad.
At Tuesday’s team announcement media conference, Nienaber explained the thinking behind picking Smith at No 8.
“If we look at Duane, he’s a big heavy No 8 who plays in a specific way. He is a guy who could get and stop momentum. Kwagga actually does the same sort of thing for us, just in a different way. He comes from a sevens background and gets momentum with his evasive skill set, which he learned in sevens.
“Even there, he had to deal with big Fijian players, so he’s developed his skill set over the years. Some people might ask how I can say this, but he probably offers something similar for us, just in a different style and way.
“If you think about Duane defensively, he is a good reader of the game, he’s got a good poaching ability and can slow the ball down. Kwagga possesses the same skill set but, yes, it is a slightly different look to what we normally have in the back row.
“But we’re comfortable with Kwagga, he fulfilled that role for us at the World Cup as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing him playing there.
“People also forget that in 2019, when we played against New Zealand in New Zealand, Kwagga was part of that team and partnered up with Duane when Siya Kolisi was injured. So it’s the nice thing about Kwagga, he actually covers 6, 7 and 8.”