The SA Rugby magazine team reflect on their favourite memories of late Bok great James Small, who passed away on Wednesday.
Craig Lewis: Although I was just seven years old when the 1995 World Cup took place, that iconic final between the Boks and All Blacks is what undoubtedly sparked my passion for the game, while tales of Small’s heroic defence opposite giant winger Jonah Lomu continue to this day.
There is no doubt Small was a one-of-a-kind player, but one of the memories that stands out for me was when Lomu returned to South Africa 20 years after the final of that World Cup. As part of a film on Lomu’s life, Small met up with the former All Blacks superstar to reminisce and walk him around Ellis Park once again.
As they chatted, Small turned to Lomu and quietly said: ‘I think the only reason people remember me is because of you.’ And yes, there is no doubt that Small’s brave defence on his opposite number is a defining part of his legacy, but the former Bok legend will be fondly remembered for much more.
He was an iconic figure in that 1995 World Cup-winning team, a player who was ahead of his time, and who brought excitement and energy wherever he went. Small is a great of the game, in every sense of the word.
John Goliath: James Small will be remembered for his spectacular try-scoring ability. He was very quick and boasted a good sense for the game. While he maybe didn’t have the all-round ability of a Bryan Habana or the lethal stepping of a Cheslin Kolbe, Small was a proper predator when the tryline was in his sights.
His determination made up for those other shortcomings and made him one of the great Springboks to ever play the game.
His feistiness, which made him such a character on the rugby field, will stay with me. He was South Africa’s first rugby rebel. In a game dominated by preppy boys, he was its original bad boy.
Small was the first Springbok to be sent off in a Test match when referee Ed Morrison dismissed him for dissent (nogal!) in the second Test between Australia and South Africa in Brisbane in 1993.
‘Well done, well done’ was apparently Small’s response when Morrison marched the Boks 10 metres back from the original penalty. In those days there wasn’t a red card, and the eccentric Morrison just pointed to the stands and said ‘Off you go’.
Two years later, however, Morrison and Small’s paths crossed again in the final of the 1995 World Cup at Ellis Park. This time Small stayed on the field and was crowned a world champion alongside his teammates.
Jon Cardinelli: There is something to be said for the tributes that have followed the news of Small’s death.
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.
Wade Pretorius: Small was a wing like no other. A rugby player who found himself in the wrong era. A misfit. A rebel. A rockstar. But my goodness, was he good.
One of the best – no hype here, the accolades and numbers tell that story. The memories of him fronting up to the haka at Ellis Park and then delivering by stopping All Blacks phenom Jonah Lomu by any means possible inspired youngsters across all talent spectrums. That day he made us all believe.
But for Small, his legacy will always be one part rugby, one part controversy. It was just the way he lived. Hard and fast. The original badboy who scored tries for fun but could never separate himself from a few off-field ‘red cards’. Mind you, you don’t think he spent much time caring about that.
Admired and respected one way or another by anyone who played with or against him, his passing leaves its mark. It stings. Death is cruel and as memories fade, it gets harder to replay his greatness in in the mind.
For now though, we sit back and raise a toast to Small, a World Cup winner. A hero.