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    Final: Kwagga’s big redemption drive

    2018-07-30 12:44

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – You have to be cautious in making any suggestion that Kwagga Smith “cost” the Lions last year’s home Super Rugby final against the Crusaders.

    That might be succumbing to over-emotion.

    Yes, his red card two minutes short of halftime hammered a pretty hefty nail into the Johannesburg team’s coffin.

    But a few had gone in already, remember.

     Although playing second fiddle at that stage for both territory and possession, the ever-wily ‘Saders were demonstrating better composure and that went some way to explaining their 12-3 lead even before Smith – an unlikely victim of such harsh sanction, really – got his banishment from Jaco Peyper.

    In a split second of madness, the mobile flanker had clattered into the visitors’ fullback David Havili in the air, and a bad landing by the victim made the early shower inevitable in the minds of many a sober critic.

    The Lions remained gutsy enough (they usually are; a passionate team ethic is etched into their collective DNA) for the rest of the showpiece but duly succumbed 25-17, hardly aided by those 42 minutes of being a man down.

    Still, the popular Albertus Smith – so much more widely known by his nickname, as was a certain John “Bakkies” Botha just up the road in Pretoria, for example – would have felt fairly mortified about his costly lapse in the losing team’s post-game dressing room.

    It is difficult not to believe that at least one reason for his fizzy, workmanlike form in the knockout phase of the 2018 competition thus far has been down to a tangible desire for atonement.

    Fuelled by his fully-warranted status as official player of the match in Saturday’s up-tempo semi-final disposal of the Waratahs at Emirates Airline Park, the 25-year-old Smith should be even more motivated than several squad-mates to turn the tables on the very same Crusaders on their own terrain, in this weekend’s first ever consecutive “repeat” final in the competition.

    To some Lions supporters, having to tackle the most successful side in tournament history in the final all over again may seem rough justice for their team’s efforts to this juncture: to Smith it may feel more like a bonus, for obvious reasons.

    Remember that despite the significant drawback of this year’s showpiece being in Christchurch, with all the long-haul travel and other impediments attached from a Lions perspective, the player himself is a useful year wiser now as a franchise rugby “fifteens” participant.

    During the 2017 campaign, Smith was still getting fully to grips with the consistent demands of Super Rugby as he was a recent convert at the time from Sevens, having been a key figure for several years – and almost 160 appearances – in the BlitzBoks’ plans.

    There have been noticeably fewer occasions this year, by my book, when he has struggled to impose himself meaningfully on a Super Rugby match.

    He just seems to be getting the balance more deftly tuned between his “run-around” activities as an open-sider and the need to get stuck in feverishly at the breakdowns.

    Alongside that emerging, multi-pronged giant of a hooker in Malcolm Marx, Smith was a proper nuisance to the Waratahs (admittedly badly missing one Michael Hooper) in both pilfering and slowing opposition ball down in that department.

    But he shone powerfully in open play, too, including that commendable bust-out from a tackle for one of his brace of tries – he’s always been adept at that, probably a benefit carried over from his Sevens tenure.

    One of the Lions’ best, broad strengths, too, is the ability of several of their players, regardless of specific berth on the park, to run smart, creative lines in heavy traffic … so often leading to something productive in an attack sense as play unexpectedly opens up and the enemy is unprepared for it.

    Into those ranks fall men like Aphiwe Dyantyi, Lionel Mapoe, Franco Mostert, Warren Whiteley … and most certainly Smith, too.

    “Kwagga” might be said to have blown his maiden exposure to Test rugby several weeks ago, when he couldn’t get genuinely into the game against Wales in a damp, slippery Washington DC.

    But it was a controversial, barely Test-worthy exercise, new coach Rassie Erasmus putting out a scratch, callow team who simply could not have been expected to gel at such indecent notice.

    More recently for the Lions, Smith has been making up lost ground in the quest to woo Erasmus once more – with the Rugby Championship in mind – and another full-blooded showing in the taxing environment of AMI Stadium this Saturday will only lift his Bok stocks further.

    After all, there are plenty of gurus who still believe the national side are short of an orthodox, spring-heeled, low-centre-of-gravity “mole” at No 6.

    But right now, Smith has entirely other matters on his mind, you can be sure …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Friday, 31 January 2020
    • Blues v Chiefs, Eden Park 08:05
    • Brumbies v Reds, GIO Stadium 10:15
    • Sharks v Bulls, Jonsson Kings Park Stadium 19:10
    Saturday, 01 February 2020
    • Sunwolves v Rebels, Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium 05:45
    • Crusaders v Waratahs, Trafalgar Park 08:05
    • Stormers v Hurricanes, Cape Town 15:05
    Sunday, 02 February 2020
    • Jaguares v Lions, Estadio Jose Amalfitani 01:00

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