Late Bok great James Small has left a legacy that will never be forgotten, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG.
Small was never going to go quietly.
When he did, the rugby world was knocked off its axis. As a player, Small had seemed bullet-proof; all smoke and fury and hot, angry muscle. The years had mellowed him, but you never thought the years would beat him. He just seemed so
It’s impossible not to see his death in July as the passing of a less complicated age. Small had emerged much as the new South Africa did; uncertain, niggly, promising, wide-eyed.
He was there when the Boks made their international return against the All Blacks in 1992, his dramatic knock-on a metaphor for SA’s tentative state, and he was there for the epic 1995 World Cup final.
He was there, too, when rugby transitioned from amateurism to professionalism, among the first to trade on his look and shtick. Unsurprisingly, he was also there for South Africa’s first red card in international rugby, in 1993.
If the Boks had tended to be stock standard – square-jawed, unsmiling, conforming – Small tore up that template. He was rock star in attitude and defiant in personality, a provocateur who divided opinion but only ever played full-blooded and head-on.Small got up the noses of teammates and opponents. He riled administrators and coaches. As an Englishman from the wrong school (Greenside, in Johannesburg) and possessed of a wild temperament, he was always going to stand out. His Afrikaans contemporaries gave him a hard time, not helped when Small wore his earring, flashed his tattoos or went off on a modelling assignment.
‘I didn’t like my teammates, so I played constantly angry and I played for myself,’ he told rugby writer Gavin Rich earlier this year.
What his rivals couldn’t argue with was his ability as a wing or fullback. The former schoolboy sprinter had genuine gas, but he was more than a pin-your-ears-back-and-head-for-the-line merchant. He had nous and smarts and he tackled hard. He was ballsy and he got in opponent’s faces, every inch the all-rounder.
Coaches like Ian McIntosh and Kitch Christie got the best out of Small because they knew which buttons to push. They were notably older men, and Small grudgingly deferred to them. The first time he met Christie, he made the mistake of calling him ‘Kitch’.
‘You call me “Coach” or “Mr Christie”,’ he was warned.
If Small could be a hot-head and prone to explosion, he had a genuine empathy with kids and was happy to spend time with strangers. He would routinely charm the women in the front office. He was nothing if not deeply complex and contradictory.
The considered view was that as the product of a broken home, Small took his insecurities and flipped them over. His apparent bravado hid a sensitive, vulnerable side that only those closest to him were aware of. For the rest, he was the typical alpha male: large and
Naturally, Small became fodder for the tabloid press, who were drawn in by the perpetual chaos and colour of his private life. He was a social animal who hung out with models, had a tempestuous love affair with Christina Storm – they had a child together – and dabbled in the dark side, admitting years later to having abused drugs and booze.
His fights with Storm became physical and years later Small said he was deeply ashamed of his behaviour. He knew he had made mistakes and as he approached middle age, he actively sought to spend quality time with his son and daughter, and with a large group of friends who kept him grounded and seemingly content. There are plenty of stories of him making small gestures and offering a friendly hand, even to strangers.
It says much for the size of his personality that so many stories abound of his life in the public eye. He clearly had a relish for a good time, but he was also someone who was never going to die wondering. He had a dry sense of humour that got good play against teammates and he was known for standing up for them.
Several times he would confront a coach about a selection, arguing on behalf of a player he felt had been hard done by. He may have been rebellious, but he also had a strong sense of right and wrong.
‘He never allowed people or opinions to change who he was, how he operated and how he saw fit to do things and run his life,’ Springbok teammate Os du Randt told SA Rugby magazine. ‘He was made out as a bad boy, but I was never sold. Yes, he wore earrings and had tattoos and didn’t conform to the perception of what a rugby player and role model should be. That wasn’t a bad boy, it was just James being James.’
The legend of Small punctuates SA rugby throughout the mid-1990s, but it was during the 1995 World Cup that he burnished his reputation. He always (wrongly) believed that Christie selected him in the absence of anyone else suitable, claiming the coach really wanted a Ray Mordt type: hard, unflinching, a prototypical team man.But Christie wasn’t stupid. He knew that for all Small’s uppity attitude and feigned malevolence, he had a real fighter on his hands. Small was as honest as the day is long and he worked hard to hone his game for the World Cup. He would do just fine. In the week of the final, against the All Blacks, Christie was asked about the plan to shut down man mountain Jonah Lomu.
‘Don’t ask me, that’s James’ problem,’ the coach deadpanned.
If Small was concerned about the challenge, he never let on. The country at large was far more concerned; callers to phone-in radio shows expressing fear he might get hurt. Privately, the team had strategised to have Small hassle and harry Lomu, standing wide and forcing Lomu inside to give his teammates a target. Small never had to go mano a mano with Lomu, his efforts directed at making life uncomfortable for the game’s hulking new superstar. As one banner declared: ‘Jonah … nobody is too big for Small.’Years later, when an ailing Lomu visited South Africa as part of a film documentary on his life, he and Small spent several touching minutes in each other’s company with an empty Ellis Park as a stark backdrop. The pathos was tangible, Lomu telling Small, ‘You brought out the best in me.’
Small got his provincial start at Transvaal and later played for the Sharks, where he arrived on a Harley-Davidson for his first practice, and Western Province. There were no half measures with him and coaches knew exactly what they were in for.
Former Springbok lock Mark Andrews was from farming stock and wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Small at the start, but he soon came to value the renegade.
‘James always pushed the edge with everything he did. But the one thing we can say with conviction about James Small is that he was always the same,’ said Andrews. ‘He lived 100%, with no half measures. He was true to himself and didn’t try to be someone he is not. In that regard, we should take our hats off to him. It is not always easy to be yourself in this world, but James was a prime example of how it should and can be done.
‘He was the typical bad boy of sport. Any sport has one, and we had James Small. He brought a different vibe and edge, which I think the game needed. You can’t deny he was a complicated guy, and maybe a bit of a loose cannon at times, but he brought a real energy to every team he played for, and he was just a great asset for the game.’
Small’s legacy might be complicated, but there was no questioning his resolve.
He was all heart.