Former Springbok Garry Pagel says the late James Small’s greatest characteristic was that he always stayed true to himself.
Small passed away suddenly on Wednesday, at the age of 50, after suffering a heart attack. A larger-than-life personality in his heyday, Small was part of the Springboks’ 1995 World Cup-winning squad and is best remembered for his superb defensive performance that kept Jonah Lomu from scoring in the final 24 years ago.
Pagel, who played alongside Small in that 1995 Bok team and later at Western Province, told SA Rugby magazine that while Small had a reputation as a bad boy, that status was both true and false.
‘James lived his life to the fullest and he played the game that way, too. Because of his antics on and off the field, people saw him as a bad boy, which he was. When he wanted something, he went for it with everything he had. That’s just the type of person he was. He enjoyed living too much and refused to be put in a box or chained down by the expectations of others,’ Pagel said.
‘But he was so much for than that, more than what people from the outside saw. After playing with him for the Springboks and later at Western Province, where we spent a great deal of time together and seeing what a kind person he really was, I got a completely different perception of him.
‘James always made time for people in need of a helping hand, whether it was family, friends or a stranger on the street. I saw first-hand how he’d go out of his way to be able to help someone. He never allowed the public to see that gentle side of himself because it would’ve ruined his bad-boy status which I think he liked, but I’ve always admired that side of him and that is how I will remember him.’
Looking back at Small’s contribution in 1995 World Cup final, Pagel says Small was a ball of nerves on the eve of his showdown with Lomu, but still tried to put the rest of the team at ease about his readiness to front the All Blacks wing.
‘He scored many brilliant tries for Boks and provincially. But the highlight of James’ career, for me, was definitely his spirited display against Lomu. He was very nervous before the time but he watched video after video of Lomu’s previous matches.
‘Some of us thought his preferred viewing, even in his downtime, bordered on excessive, but that was how he worked out how he would defend against Lomu. And even though he was nervous, he said to us not to worry because he will have Lomu covered and he did.’
Pagel added that rugby rarely produces players with the same competitive streak as Small these days.
‘He was a fierce competitor with a will to win. It’ s hard to find players like that today. He was also a very considerate and family-oriented person.
‘I saw him quite a while back, at our annual 1995 squad get-together and as always he was the life of the party.’
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images