He was nicknamed “Zebra” at birth, and Kwagga Smith has certainly been showing his stripes by staring for South Africa in two codes of rugby this year.
An intrinsic part of the South Africa sevens set-up for several years – he won a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games – Smith enjoyed a breakout year in 15s rugby as he made the Super Rugby final with the Lions, who were beaten 25-17 by New Zealand’s Crusaders.
On top of that he was named man of the match for the Barbarians against New Zealand a few weeks ago and collected the Player of the Final award last night as South Africa swept to a 24-12 win at the Dubai Sevens, the opening leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Zebra can seemingly do no wrong – and now he’s targeting a place in the Springboks 2019 Rugby World Cup squad.
“You must set your goals and my next goal is the Commonwealth Games and the Sevens World Cup,” Smith, 24, said after Saturday night’s triumph.
“After that I will do my best to get into the Springbok team for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. I’ll just try my best, work hard and give myself the best chance that I can give myself. And then we can look at others like another Olympics, if I’m blessed to play for so long.”
Smith, whose birth name is actually Albertus Stephanus Smith, told a touching tale in which he revealed he was actually given the name Kwagga – the Afrikans word for quagga, an extinct subspecies of plains zebra – by his older brother Willem on the night he was born.
Smith said: “I’ll tell you a story, it’s easier to understand. My brother Willem is two years older than me and we (family) farm in northern South Africa.
“The night I was born he was with my grandparents on the farm and they asked him ‘what’s your brother’s name?’, and obviously my brother is two-years-old, he grew up on the farm, he knew animal names, and he just said ‘Kwagga’ and it’s just stuck.”
Smith has certainly been a beast in his early career in rugby, switching seamlessly from sevens to 15s. And having shone against the All blacks in a 31-22 defeat at Twickenham on November 4, Smith is happy to be back with his sevens family for the 2017/18 World Series campaign.
He added: “Both give you satisfaction. For me it’s just an honour to play and earn the respect from the other players. It was awesome to meet new guys with the Barbarians, and it’s awesome to be back with my family and contribute while I’m here.”
And despite his flawless transition between the codes, Smith admits it’s been a lot of hard work on his part, as well as that of his coaches at both levels.
“It’s easy for me to come into a team like this and perform because the guys are so willing to work for you and it helps they make you feel so welcome,” he said.
“I’m lucky because I’ve been doing this for five/six years now, going to 15s and coming back in, the coaches have helped me and it’s awesome to be with the guys again.
“It’s definitely not been easy, coming from sevens to 15s and playing Super Rugby. I’ve had a few Currie Cup seasons but never played a full Super Rugby season, but it’s easy to go into a system where the team is doing well.
“I’ve performed there and there’s some good coaches, Johann Ackerman (former Lions coach) is a brilliant coach and had the trust in me and my abilities, and has given me the chance to prove myself.”
At around the same time as 15s rugby was plunging further into the abyss, South Africa’s sevens side was asserting itself as the new, true power of the game’s shortened format.
As the Springboks ended their autumn series on a low note in defeat to Wales in Cardiff, the Blitzbokke were blasting away the old guard of New Zealand in the Dubai Rugby Sevens final.
A 24-12 victory was far from commanding and New Zealand began their 2017/18 campaign with something they never attained last season – an appearance in a final.
But Neil Powell’s green army are well and truly on the march. And the head coach admits he wants his side to emulate what the All Blacks Sevens, the dominant force of sevens over the years, have achieved – even though he doubts such dominance can be repeated in the modern age.
“Obviously it is something that we would like to do and we have positioned ourselves well now among the best teams, but it’s going to be tough to be dominant for that long like New Zealand were in the past,” said Powell after South Africa retained their Dubai title with a 24-12 win over their Southern Hemisphere rivals.
“I don’t think you’ll get a team that dominates like New Zealand has in the past. I think you’ll get teams who will be successful for a year or two then there will be a change of the guard quite often in the future.
“It’s always going to be a challenge. Teams up there are competitive. England, Fiji, Australia had a fantastic tournament, New Zealand are in a building phase and are just going to get better.”
First-half tries from Rosko Specman, former World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Seabelo Senatla and HSBC Player of the Final Kwagga Smith put the rampant Blitzboks 19-0 up against New Zealand, who were chasing their first tournament win since Vancouver in 2016.
And they rallied in the second half, captain Scott Curry and Andrew Knewstubb got their side back into the match, but with their opponents threatening a superb comeback, Tim Agaba powered over to close the game out.
Smith has enjoyed a 2017 campaign to remember so far. He had a breakthrough year with the Lions, superb as the South African side reached the Super Rugby final against New Zealand’s Crusaders.
He was also named man of the match against the All Blacks in a 31-22 defeat a few weeks ago, dismantling the myth players can no longer switch between codes at the elite level.
“He’s a phenomenal player, phenomenal in both codes and I’m pleased we can have someone like that in our system,” Smith said if the 24-year-old.
“Hopefully we can hold onto him until the 2020 Olympics because I think a lot of clubs will be wanting to throw a bit of money at him.”
After expressing displeasure at the way his defending HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions began their defence in a lacklustre 19-10 victory over invitational side Uganda, Powell praised the way his side ended the weekend.
“I’m always worried coming into this tournament. I’m always worried about complacency from our team, but I have to give credit to the players,” said Powell, a former Blitzbokke player himself.
“Every time they put their jersey on their backs there’s a lot of pride and they want to make that green and gold jersey one of the best brands in the world.”
For New Zealand, they had to be content with silver, but having lost the lustre of previous years, they can be encouraged by reaching a final – last season their best placing was third, three times.
And captain Curry said his side will take comfort from a fine showing from a side that’s not been together very long.
“It’s exciting looking forward,” said the 29-year-old.
“We’ve only been together a couple of months so to go and push the best team in the world, we’re pretty pleased with that.”
His team banished the pain of 11 years without a trophy, but the pain Dubai Exiles’ Kris Hughes had been harbouring deep inside was far more raw and real as his emotions finally overcame him at the final whistle.
The Scotsman lost his dad suddenly to pneumonia in April, but paid the perfect tribute to his “biggest fan” yesterday as Exiles claimed the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens.
Exiles earned a thrilling come from behind victory against the Jebel Ali Dragons juggernaut that had steamrollered teams throughout the weekend. For 24-year-old Hughes it was justification for not jacking rugby in as he had felt like doing when receiving a phonecall seven months ago telling him the devastating news his dad Stephen had died after a short illness.
“I was due to fly back as a surprise for my family five days later so just missed out on seeing him, which was the worst part of it,” revealed Hughes, a personal trainer.
“It was heartbreaking. 12 hours later I was back in Scotland, I just grabbed the first flight there.
“It was sudden. I came home from work one day, the phone went in my flat and that’s when I got the news. There was no warning.
“It was bronchitis pneumonia, he’d been in hospital for a few days, which I didn’t know about. He started having breathing problems. He wasn’t in any pain, he went peacefully which is something I was thankful for.”
It’s often been said that the UAE rugby community is like your second family, and Hughes certainly needed his Exiles brothers for support after his dad’s death, which hit him harder being 3,000 miles away from home.
His immediate reaction was to take a break from playing rugby. But his coach at Exiles, Jacques Benade, persuaded him to stick around.
That encouragement and Hughes’ determination to keep going and honour his father paid off in the most perfect way yesterday and he felt like his father was there with him in spirit, in addition to the word ‘dad’ he has etched into the strapping on both wrists since his death.
“That took a lot of the drive to compete away from me because he was my biggest fan,” added Hughes, who actually only started playing rugby in his mid-teens after a career as a promising goalkeeper with Hibernian and Rangers stalled.
“We’d talk about everything after every game so I wasn’t sure if playing sport was going to feel right anymore.
“I was going to take a year out from rugby but Jacques convinced me to stay and play another year, and I’ve dedicated every game and every performance to him (dad) which is why I get my wrists strapped every game, for him.”
Hughes admitted to feeling emotional in the tunnel prior to the game and taking to the main Pitch 1 at The Sevens Stadium in front of thousands of raucous fans.
So a stomach-churning encounter in which they were faced with an early 12-0 deficit against fierce rivals Dragons was probably the last thing he needed.
Former Exiles player Matt Richards burst through to open the scoring after barely a minute and before they knew it Exiles were two tries down, Nick McCashin cashing in, and on the precipice.
But they kept their composure and reduced arrears when Tomas Sackmann capitalised on an error and surged over, Durandt Gerber’s conversion making it 12-7.
As Exiles grew in stature, Dragons wilted in the heat, seeing Scott Hayes and Richards sent to the sin-bin in quick succession before the interval for infringing near their try line.
It didn’t work and Exiles were level when Sackmann went over again to tie the scores after the hooter.
In a thrilling second half, Thinus Steyn’s brilliant cover tackle prevented Richards from giving the lead back to Dragons. A third Dragon, Niko Volavola, was then shown yellow as Exiles again threatened.
They wasted the opportunity but were soon celebrating taking the lead when Terry Jacobs cut through the line to go in under the posts with 20 seconds remaining.
Dragons had one more chance but a knock-on ended the contest and sent the Exiles players and sideline into frenzied celebration.
Having discussed with his dad last year how special it would be to win a title at the Sevens and with Hughes planning to head back home at the end of the season, the man from Rutherglen is rapturous about the memory he’ll get to take back to South Lanarkshire.
Hughes said: “I’ll probably move back to Scotland at the end of April/May so to get an opportunity to play, never mind come away with such a fantastic result, it means the world to me and will be a memory I’ll take with me for the rest of my life and my career.
“I spoke to dad about it last year and he told me if I got to the final it would be one of the highlights of my career, so to get the opportunity this year means a lot.
“Just going on the pitch was emotional enough and it was hard to fight back the tears. The euphoria and the memories, it all just kind of collided at the final whistle when we won. It meant a lot more to be than just stepping out on that pitch. I was doing it for someone else.
“It feels good, like I’m still doing something for him. I wasn’t going to do any sports but he was so passionate so there’s still that connection.
“He loved watching me and my brother competing so to keep it going means a lot to me. Everything I do now I do it for him, it gives me that extra boost. And it’s a perfect tribute to him.”