Springbok wing James Small should be remembered for his courage in the face of adversity as much as his speed and finishing strengths, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The 50-year-old suffered a heart attack on Wednesday. After the news of the former Bok wing’s passing broke, social media was flooded with heartfelt tributes and nods to one of the most iconic figures in South African sporting history.
Small embodied the attitude of the Bok team that beat the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup final. It was David versus Goliath – or more specifically Small versus Jonah Lomu – on that unforgettable afternoon at Ellis Park. Small took up the challenge against Lomu, as did the Bok collective against a more-fancied All Blacks juggernaut.
Nobody gave the Boks a chance going into that tournament. And yet, after they beat the Wallabies in the opening game, more and more people started to believe that this story may have a fairytale ending.
Not against the All Blacks, though. Everyone had seen what Lomu had done to Mike Catt and others in the semi-final against England.
Sure, it was a special time for the country and most of us were inclined to believe that miracles were possible. A win against the mighty All Blacks, however, seemed a big ask.
Small was a big man by 1990s standards, but he was no Lomu. The result of that match-up and of the game itself seemed a foregone conclusion.
We know how it all panned out. Small stared down Lomu when the All Blacks performed the haka. There was no fear in his eyes. There was no fear in the way he and his teammates carried themselves throughout the game.
It was a fantastic lesson for those who believe that size is the be-all and end-all in sport. Attitude and belief matter a great deal.
The size of Small’s heart that day, of course, was plain for all to see. It made the difference. It was a performance and story that captivated the rugby community at large.
Two decades later, Small and Lomu spoke about the match in a documentary. It was clear that both players had enormous respect for each other. It was easy to understand why Lomu was so revered – given his stature and contribution to rugby – and yet interesting to note how much he thought of Small as a player and man.
Evidently many people feel the same way. It was sad to hear about Small’s passing on Wednesday. There is something to be said, however, for the tributes that have followed.
Tributes from former teammates, opponents and other rugby people were to be expected. What was fascinating to see was how the South African community as a whole reacted.
‘James Small has died.’ A lot of people, some I haven’t heard from in years, sent me this message shortly after the news was confirmed.
Some of them live in far-flung Canada, in South America, in Australia and even in Norway. Some of them have never been big rugby fans and a few of them don’t even follow sport.
They all know who James Small is, though, and perhaps that is the point.
What Small and the class of 1995 achieved 24 years ago transcends sport. Encouraged by then president Nelson Mandela, the Boks never wavered in their belief that David could – and would – slay Goliath.
It’s an attitude that everyone can appreciate, and one that will define Small’s legacy.
Photo: John Jones/Getty Images