Kwagga Smith (L) has been chosen to replace the injured Duane Vermeulen (top right)

Start searching for weak links in the Springboks side named to face the British and Irish Lions on Saturday and you will be looking for a very, very long time. 

The decision to name first-choice props Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe among the replacements raised eyebrows, but anyone who saw Malherbe’s impact against Georgia when he came off the bench to replace Trevor Nyakane will be wary of the demolition work Malherbe can instantly carry out in the set-piece.

The only other minor quibble, if you can even deem it to be one, is the selection of Kwagga Smith at No 8. This is partly because Smith is not Duane Vermeulen, the player of the match in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final and a talismanic presence for the Springboks throughout their run to hammering England in Yokohama.

Vermeulen is obviously a nightmare to stop given his size but he ticked a number of other boxes for South Africa; being a leader in defence, a threat at the breakdown and, as you may remember, setting up destructive midfield mauls.

Maul

Any side is going to struggle to replace Vermeulen, and what Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber were left with heading into this series once it became clear that Vermeulen wouldn’t be back in time from the ankle surgery he underwent in June were a few options. Smith was one of them. 

The uncapped Leicester Tigers back-row Jasper Wiese was another, closer to Vermeulen in terms of size and coming off a season where he punished tacklers in the Premiership. Dan du Preez of Sale was another option, but has since been released from the national squad along with nine other players following South Africa ‘A”s game against the Bulls. 

Which leaves Smith at the top of the pecking order. He’s an interesting case on background alone, shining in Sevens and going to the Olympics with South Africa, returning to XVs with the Golden Lions and reaching multiple Super Rugby finals, before picking up a World Cup winners’ medal in Japan.

Smith is five inches smaller and over 20 kilograms lighter than his predecessor in the No 8 shirt, but that doesn’t mean he’s ineffective with ball in hand. Given Smith’s pace, the Lions need to be sharp with their kicking accuracy to stop him getting up a head of steam.

Kwagga run

Despite the obvious size differential, Smith in terms of ball carrying is almost as effective as Vermeulen, just with a different approach more focused on his footwork rather than muscle mass. Jacques Nienaber, the South Africa head coach, explained that this week.

Duane is a guy that can get and stop momentum. He is a big boy, a heavy guy, and he gets and stops momentum in a specific way but a guy like Kwagga does exactly the same for us but just maybe a little bit different. Kwagga comes from a sevens background, probably gets momentum with his evasion, with his evasive skillset which he learned in sevens where they have to handle big players, Fijian players. He has had to develop that skill set over the years.

People will look at it and go, ‘How can you say that?’ But it gives us the same. There is a different style in a different way. 

Below is a comparison of both players numbers, taking averages per 80 minutes since the start of 2019 (Vermeulen’s played in eight Tests, Smith six).

Duane Vermeulen vs Kwagga Smith – ball carrying

More on those carrying numbers later but first, Smith’s inclusion allows South Africa to do something a little bit different at the scrum, and also gives the Springboks a great turnover threat. 

Flexibility off the scrum

What’s been apparent in Smith’s two recent starts against Georgia and for SA ‘A’ against the Bulls is how many different ways the Springboks plan to use Smith in that eight role at the back of the scrum.

Harking back to that defenders beaten stat above, you can see how effective Smith’s footwork is from a standing start against a drifting defence. Here he is testing Georgia off an attacking scrum.

Kwagga

One of the more interesting uses of Smith has been as a distributor from the base, giving South Africa some quick width to attack.

Kwagga pass

The clip below feels like something we’re destined to see in the Test series from scrums nearer the touchline, with Smith breaking in one direction and feeding whoever is the Springbok scrum-half – in this case Cobus Reinach for SA ‘A’ – the chance to get a kick away upfield down the line.

Kwagga scrum move

In fact any scrums with a short blindside open up a number of options for South Africa. Here’s Smith feeding Pollard on a crash ball – not ideally how you want to use your best fly-half – and then haring over to the ruck to clear out a Georgian defender.

Kwagga pass clearout

Smith’s pace off the base is a known weapon at this point, and it led to him scoring a try against Georgia from a close-range scrum. 

The closing minutes of the defeat to the Bulls however were more interesting. Wiese came off the bench at No 8, leading to Smith switching to flanker. But with the game on the line and SA ‘A’ looking for a winning score from a scrum, Smith is switched back to No 8, with SA ‘A’ hoping he can beat the Bulls back row with his speed (as was the case against Georgia).

It doesn’t work out – the scrum doesn’t wheel to the left as Smith would have hoped to tie in the back row, the hook back is a mess and he has to go digging, but also, Nizaam Carr for the Bulls watches Smith like a hawk and stops him well short of the line.

Kwagga scrum stuffed

Given Smith’s pace from that position, it’s a tactic the Springboks are bound to roll out again. Jake White’s Bulls illustrated how to shut it down.

Turnover threat

It’s worth noting that Vermeulen was strong over the ball at the breakdown during the World Cup, particularly in the final against England. Smith’s background in Sevens makes him a threat when it comes to winning jackal turnovers, but it’s also interesting to see how often since the start of 2019 he has secured turnovers in the tackle itself.

Duane Vermeulen v Kwagga Smith – defence and turnovers

As Nienaber added when discussing Smith’s selection, you’re getting a similar output with Smith, but it doesn’t look the same.

If you think about Duane defensively, he is a good reader of the game, he has got a good poaching ability to slow down the ball and Kwagga possesses the same skillset, just a little bit different.

The Bulls’ persistent pressure on the SA ‘A’ defence last weekend gave Smith plenty of opportunities to flex his jackaling muscles close to his own try line, with mixed results.

Smith if given the opportunity will not let Ali Price or Conor Murray rest. Here he legally comes through to poach the ball off Zak Burger, who only pauses for a second, after confirmation from the referee that the ball is out.

Kwagga ruck

Blink and you’ll miss him entering the ruck here spotting an exposed ball carrier, but he rolls out with the ball at the end, showing an excellent leg position to make the turnover before the Bulls come back for a previous penalty.

Kwagga turnover

As mentioned before, it wasn’t all perfect. Smith appears to have won the ball back here with another turnover only for the Bulls to come up with possession.

Kwagga turnover 2

While here he gets a little greedy – you can spot his hands trying to scoop the ball back as Smith and SA ‘A’ are pinged for hands in the ruck.

Kwagga penalty

Given Smith’s sharp breakdown technique, he’s going to threaten in this area. That’s nothing the Lions are not already aware of, but keeping him subdued will be the job of Tom Curry and Jack Conan in particular.

Finally, for no real reason other than it looks great, here’s Smith racing back, using his speed and power, to make a big tackle on Johan Goosen.

Kwagga tackle

He might not be the same world-class standard No 8 as Vermeulen or supply the same heft, but Smith brings an intriguing skill-set to South Africa’s back row.