There is one minute left in the Men's Rugby World Cup 2023 final. The All Blacks are attacking, desperately trying to claw back a one-point deficit when a relatively slight, compact green-clad figure stations himself over the ball and wins a vital turnover. 

It was Kwagga Smith. 

Of course it was. The 1.80cm, 100kg replacement openside may have only been on the pitch for 21 minutes but it was his third turnover. Smith’s total of 10 across the tournament – three more than any other player – were part of a table-topping 40 he completed in international and club rugby in 2023, according to data experts Opta. 

When asked where this highly prized skillset comes from, the answer is unequivocal. 

“Definitely sevens,” said Smith, who won 40 caps for the South African men’s sevens team between 2013 and 2016. “Sevens gave me more speed and more agility and maybe more vision and that individual skill.”

‘If you don’t perform you won’t be in the team’

Aged 19 when he became a key part of the Blitzboks, it was sevens that made Smith the player – and perhaps the man – he has become. 

“It teaches you to be professional really quickly in your life,” he said. “As a youngster you travel the world and everything, but you’ve got to perform to stay there. If you don’t perform, you won’t get picked. 

“It’s a nice environment and as a youngster you really get a lot of opportunities. But you’ve got to use those opportunities and you’ve got to perform.” 

A home World Series tournament winner on his debut and a key part of the squad that overturned four-time champions New Zealand on their way to the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medal, the teenage Smith clearly thrived under such pressure. 

Cheslin Kolbe soon joined him in the sevens outfit and the culture that has helped drive the pair to double Rugby World Cup glory was born. 

“We had that character of working really hard,” Smith explained. “I think that is what took us through. For me and Cheslin, that’s something we kept on using, knowing we would reach our goals if we worked hard enough.” 

Blossoming on the biggest stage of all

While he naturally wants to start for the Springboks, Smith acknowledges that he has become almost as famous as team-mate Ox Niche for the impact he makes off the bench. 

Once again, the 30-year-old knows exactly where that comes from. 

“I definitely think the energy that I bring on to the field didn’t start when I started playing 15s. That started when I played sevens and you knew you’ve only got seven minutes per half and you’ve got to make sure that every second counts,” he said. 

The benefits sevens brought kept coming. While he might have since scaled the world twice as a 15s player, it was his first iteration as an international that took him to something even bigger. 

“The Olympics was something else,” Smith said. “The biggest world stage you can play.” 

The Blitzboks had won the World Series twice in the build-up to the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and arrived in Brazil as one of the favourites. Bronze was a fine achievement but other experiences were even more impactful than winning a medal. 

“He [South African Wayde van Niekerk] ran the world record in the 400m [final]. That was quite special. We watched it live. That was quite amazing. It was just crazy,” Smith said with a smile. 

Tempted by Paris 2024

The 2016 experience was so good Smith nearly ‘did an Antoine Dupont’ for the Paris 2024 Olympics. 

“I was thinking about maybe going back for the Olympics but it’s not going to work out,” Smith said. “The schedule of the international season, with the Springboks, just didn’t add up for me. At this moment it [the Springboks] is where my focus is.” 

While that will disappoint fans of one of the fastest games on the planet, sevens remains part of his life on and off the pitch. 

“We still do a lot of drills that we did in sevens because they are such good drills for individuals,” said Smith, who reveals he still watches plenty of the HSBC SVNS 2024 series. “It’s normally defensive stuff. It’s basically one-on-one and you are almost side-tracking into a line break and then you have to defend a guy.” 

It all adds up to a simple message. 

“For me, playing sevens at a young age is one of the best things that I’ve ever done in my life,” Smith said. “I would recommend it to any youngster if they really want to grow their game and become better as a player.”