Former Springbok wing James Small made a big impact, on and off the field, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
SA Rugby magazine’s selection of the best 30 Springboks since 1995 – and its No 1 pick – should create some debate, simply because lists like these are subjective.
I bet if you randomly picked 10 South African rugby fans out of a crowd and asked them to select their top 30 Boks since 1995, you’d get 10 very different lists. While all those fans would be wearing green-and-gold tinted glasses, their Bok experiences would vary and they’d all have their favourite players.
My favourite Bok from the past 27 years, James Small, would definitely be on my list.
As a kid growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, Small was my rugby hero. I had posters of the Sharks and Bok wing on my bedroom walls and a magazine photo of him inside my pencil case.
In 1993, when I was 13, I read that Small would be at a Pinetown shopping centre to sign autographs. My mom couldn’t take me in the car for some reason, so I grabbed one of my scrapbooks that I knew had a photo of Small in it, and rode the 10km from Westville on my bike.
It was definitely worth the effort when I saw Small sitting behind a table outside the CNA, joined the long queue of fans and eventually got to the front. He asked me for my name and wrote on the photo of himself taking a high ball during training: ‘To Simon, Be good to yourself’ followed by his signature. I was elated on the ride home, which didn’t feel nearly as long.
Small went on to win the World Cup with the Springboks in 1995, famously keeping All Blacks juggernaut Jonah Lomu in check during the final, and was controversially dropped by Bok coach Andre Markgraaff in 1996 for ‘bad behaviour’ which only enhanced his bad-boy reputation and enamoured him even more to his fans. Small was also part of Sharks teams that won back-to-back Currie Cup titles in 1995 and 1996, and lifted the trophy again with Western Province in 1997. He would end his provincial career where it had begun, in Joburg, hanging up his boots in 1999.
Three years later, I got to meet Small properly at an SA Rugby magazine photo shoot. He was doing a feasibility study on the old Dros building in Cape Town’s CBD with plans to renovate it, and a vibrant mural at the cafe next door provided the perfect backdrop for such a colourful character.
Once the face of a No Rules clothing campaign, Small said he had no regrets from his career and nothing to apologise for. He spoke of his desire to be married in 10 years’ time (he was dating Christina Storm, who he’d later get engaged to), have five kids (he would settle for two) and be running a beach pub (he turned Café Caprice into a Camps Bay hotspot).
I’d always hoped to chat to Small in a more casual setting, like a rugby box at Kings Park, but the opportunity never came and when he passed away in 2019, at the age of 50, it came as a big shock because heroes are supposed to live forever.
I did, however, get to meet his charismatic mother, Vourn, earlier this year and she told me enough stories about James to fill several pages in this magazine. She said her son had been larger than life. He had lived life to the fullest and crammed 500 years into his 50. While rugby had mattered a lot to him, it had never been the be-all and end-all for him. He had loved his family and friends, been a doting dad to son Caleb and daughter Ruby, and was extremely loyal.
So, thanks to his 81-year-old mother, I did get to know my rugby hero, who may not be the No 1-ranked Springbok from the past 27 years but will always be the first name on my list of the best.
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