Thu, 04 Jun 2020

James Small: Tribute to a self-motivated scrapper

10 Jul 2019, 23:42 GMT+10

Cape Town - It was never going to have to be his job alone ... especially, you could argue, when his surname was Small.

But marking the then novel, mountainous-framed individual icon of the 1995 World Cup -- New Zealand's left wing Jonah Lomu -- was officially the task of the Springboks' No 14, James Small, who passed away on Wednesday aged only 50, in the quite unforgettable Ellis Park final.

The Capetonian-born, versatile back-liner (he could be just as comfortable and zesty at fullback, especially in his younger rugby years) wouldn't have gone out of his way to implore others to cover him; that wasn't the style of a 1.85-metre, 88kg player hardly lacking in self-belief, combustibility or chutzpah despite his relatively modest physical proportions.

But that Bok class of '95 was marked by a special sense of unity in poignant South African times - Nelson Mandela seemed to take an extra liking to Small - and, on the red-letter day, the likes of Joost van der Westhuizen and Japie Mulder helped police the flying tree trunk who was Lomu with critical tackles of their own on him ... they do say many hands make light work, perhaps even of the heaviest (some 128kg in this case) of tasks.

Small, for his part, vigilantly, determinedly never strayed from his post against the freak of nature in a hallmark that went some way to explaining the 15-12 outcome in South Africa's favour, and it is an unpalatable thought that only Mulder, of that quartet of eminent rugby personnel under discussion, is not deceased.

The product of Greenside High School in Johannesburg joins Van der Westhuizen and Ruben Kruger as Boks of that 1995 squad now mourned, although the category also includes head coach Kitch Christie.

By the time he joined his team-mates in jubilantly hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time, Small had already amassed 22 of his eventually 47 Test caps, having made his debut for the country against the same foes in the isolation-ending once-off clash at the same Highveld venue in August 1992, when the All Blacks prevailed against raw (possibly overly cocky in some cases) opponents 27-24.

Small remained a regular feature of Bok teams until his last appearance against Scotland at Murrayfield in late 1997, during Nick Mallett's memorable first tour as national coach.

Fittingly, it was one of the most vibrant collective performances of Springbok history, a record-breaking 68-10 demolition job, in which Small dotted two of the 10 tries for the rampant visitors.

He would finish with a win percentage of 61.70 in the green and gold jersey.

James Terence Small had first come to light as a highly-touted under-20 star for Transvaal, and played senior provincial rugby also in the colours of Natal and Western Province.

Both on and off the field, he was seldom too far from a certain notoriety, getting into various scraps - albeit often verbal or crudely demonstrative, more than physical - with rival players, and keeping bouncers busy at times with his night-time escapades that provided manna for particularly the tabloid-styled media.

On the Bok tour of Australia in 1992, Small earned a landmark of a particularly questionable kind when he became the first Springbok to be sent off ... for dissent against neutral English referee Ed Morrison.

As if to confirm his tempestuous relations with whistlemen, South Africa's own, now retired top-tier referee Jonathan Kaplan tweeted soon after news of Small's death broke that he "wasn't the easiest oke to ref on the field, but one of the kindest off it".

His relationship with actress/model Christina Storm often pitched him into the paparazzi pages, and perhaps just as inevitably had its notable ups and downs before it ended.

Another flashpoint in Small's seldom uneventful life was the subsequent accusation by Chester Williams, ironically his wing colleague in the RWC showpiece of '95, of racist name-calling directed his way by Small at Currie Cup level.

For all its voluminously-documented roughness, though, South African rugby has lost another diamond.

*Follow our chief writer: @RobHouwing

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