Cape Town – The significance of Kwagga Smith’s selection for South Africa in the Test match against Wales in Washington DC on Saturday may have got a little lost in the understandably more widespread analysis of Rassie Erasmus’s first Springbok team.
But if the Lions tearaway and former SA Sevens ace manages to be highly influential as open-side flank on his debut – along with six others – it may trigger thoughts in the new head coach’s mind, if they don’t exist already, that a genuine “fetcher” should become a more regular part of his plans.
The Boks haven’t consistently deployed an out-and-out, low-centre-of-gravity whippet in their No 6 jersey, really, since the sadly curtailed heyday of Heinrich Brussow.
That period is in the pretty distant annals, now, too.
Although the former Cheetahs favourite, 31 and on the books these days of Northampton Saints in the English Premiership, had a brief, three-match return to favour toward the end of Heyneke Meyer’s tenure in charge of the national team, he is best remembered for his deeper contribution to a phase under the earlier charge of Peter de Villiers.
His 23-cap Bok career included, most notably, a massive personal role in South Africa’s last triumphant Tri-Nations (now Rugby Championship) campaign in 2009, when great rivals the All Blacks were beaten three times in a row on the way to the title.
The New Zealanders found Brussow an absolute pest over the ball at breakdowns, unable for the most part to arrest his dominance – and that at a time when the All Black captain was an even more legendary figure in open-side play, Richie McCaw.
But with injuries hardly helping his cause, Brussow gradually slipped down the Bok pecking order in the position.
Meyer tended to favour larger, more abrasive specimens to fulfil the pilfering task, so men like Schalk Burger, Marcell Coetzee and Francois Louw were more customarily assigned to the fetching role, doubling as strong ball carriers at close quarters and forceful, industrial “cleaners” into the bargain.
There is a fairly widespread school of thought, to the present, that most pack members need to be potentially proficient at stealing the ball on the deck, rendering the role of the more old-fashioned, highly mobile specialist just a tad obsolete.
For example, many hookers have increasingly developed into significant menaces on the deck – Malcolm Marx and recently-recalled veteran Bismarck du Plessis cases in point – and backlines also contain certain, wily “theft” opportunists.
One from that department who may imminently enjoy a first start for the Boks (in the home series against England) is Sharks outside centre Lukhanyo Am, among whose qualities is a pluckiness and excellent reach over the ball when it is on the deck.
Nevertheless, several better international outfits still prefer a more traditional, speedy open-sider in their mix … including the world champion New Zealanders, in the form of Sam Cane (and Ardie Savea) and Australia, who sometimes field two at once – one at No 8 – in the form of David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
So debate will continue to rage about exactly what type of No 6 (No 7 to most of the rest of the world) is ultimately the best to have.
At least for the time being, it seems that Erasmus will keep faith in Siya Kolisi, not the smallest or swiftest of open-siders, in that particular role, especially as he has named him captain for the full series against the English.
But the popular Stormers figure can also be deployed at blind-side, even if he is not as physically gargantuan as some specimens who perform that function and has tended to play his best Bok Tests as a six.
He is probably best contemplated as a blind-sider only if the Boks are intending to compensate in the bulk department at loose forward by fielding a brawny No 8 like stalwart Duane Vermeulen or Sharks youngster Dan du Preez.
At least for the moment, though, it will be a surprise if Kolisi is shifted away from the open side.
That said, if Smith were to have a terrific debut in Washington on Saturday, the Bok brains trust may simultaneously just begin to tweak their own thoughts about how to best assemble and balance their loose trio, going forward.
The Lions dynamo is not the finished article as a No 6 yet, by any means, as he is still getting to grips with regular duty back at “fifteens” rugby after his years of major diversion as a Sevens force.
He occasionally gets a little lost in games for the Lions when the tempo and style of a game doesn’t hugely suit him, but there is also no doubt that when he is able to be influential, he can be strikingly imperious.
Smith sports exactly the same, limited height as Brussow (1.80m), and is a few kilograms lighter at a modest 90kg, although he puts himself about as if someone considerably beefier.
What’s exciting about him is that his mobility and linking skills and relish are largely beyond doubt, making him a very useful source of X-factor from the forward ranks in attacking raids, where he has the stepping and running ability of a nippy three-quarter.
If the “Kwagga” gallops with suitable glee, enterprise and menace against Wales, South Africa may be closer than we imagine to a significant tactical shift for more critical dates on their calendar …
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