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By David O’Sullivan
James Small died today from a sudden heart attack, aged 50.
Considered one of the more colourful, rebellious and hard-living players of his time, he played 47 times for the Springboks, 44 times on the wing and three times at fullback. He was on the winning side 28 times, and scored 20 tries. He made history on three notable occasions – playing in the first Test after readmission (24-27 defeat to New Zealand at Ellis Park in 1992), winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995 (15-12 victory over New Zealand at Ellis Park in 1995), and being the first Springbok to be sent off in a Test match (20-28 defeat to Australia in Brisbane in 1993).
Small had the reputation of being a tough, no-nonsense player, a reputation he cultivated off the field. But a small scratch of the surface revealed an emotional, deep-thinking individual. This was a side he rarely allowed the public to see.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) July 10, 2019
I knew James well enough to enjoy a few beers in his company. The last time I saw him was last Thursday when we met up at the Southern Sun Hyde Park and made tentative arrangements to hook up in Yokohama for the Springboks’ opening game of the Rugby World Cup against New Zealand. He was going to Japan with several teammates from the 1995 World Cup-winning squad. He told me they were all furious with Faf du Plessis for saying that not winning the Cricket World Cup wasn’t the end of the world. “[email protected]#$&!!” he said with his usual exuberance, “it’s a matter of life and death! We didn’t have that approach in 1995!”
I interviewed James many times over the years. The best interviews we recorded were for a documentary series about the Springboks at the World Cup that I made in 2011 for SABC Sport. I have been watching the raw footage once again, and I’m struck by the number of times his eyes fill up with tears as he remembers key moments of the 1995 World Cup campaign.
James Small gave me my first and only paying job outside of music. I was 18 made R6000 to do a graffiti banner. Bought 6 pairs or Jordans and told my mum she ain’t had to worry about sneakers. You were a legend then, you are a legend now, thank you for the great memories RIP. 🙏🏾
— STOGIE T (@TumiMolekane) July 10, 2019
He gets particularly tearful and stops talking when he remembers the unlikely relationship he had with Nelson Mandela. When they met for the first time at the Boks’ training camp at Silvermine in Cape Town, the President made a point of engaging James in conversation, telling him that his grandson had a poster of James on his bedroom wall. “That just picked me up”, he recalled. He recounted how Mandela stopped to talk to him while being introduced to the players on the field just before kick-off in the World Cup final, putting his hand on James’ shoulder wishing him well against the fearsome Jonah Lomu.
He wasn’t proud of his record of being the first Bok to get a red card. He swore at referee Ed Morrison during the Bok defeat against Australia in Brisbane in 1993 and remained adamant the Englishman deserved it. Morrison later took charge of the World Cup final.
He loved to talk about the World Cup final, admitting that the day was such a blur. He didn’t remember arriving at Ellis Park, he didn’t remember that Nelson Mandela came into their dressing room for a few motivational words. He remembered seeing Jonah Lomu, the All Black giant whose rivalry with James was much hyped before the game. Lomu was wearing a pair of headphones and James was struck more by the size of the headphones than the size of the individual.
Absolutely gutted to here the news that James Small had passed away!! Had the pleasure of spending some with passionate man. Condolences to his family during this time. RIP James🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/dNYyGUFpmS
— Allan Donald (@AllanDonald33) July 10, 2019
He remembered how the gigantic lock Kobus Wiese stood in front of him during the haka, sending out the message to the New Zealanders that if you want to hit James, you have to come through him first.
He remembered that he was never called upon to pull off try-saving tackles on Lomu. That job fell to Chester Williams, Japie Mulder and Joost van der Westhuizen. He preferred to “scrag him, pull his neck and do whatever I could to keep him busy”. On attack, James was confident he could beat Lomu with pace, knowing he was nimbler and quicker than the larger Kiwi.
He remembered how he cramped up and missed the last few minutes of the match, stumbling in agony as the clock wound down to history. When asked if winning the World Cup was the greatest elation he’d ever felt, he gave an emphatic reply. “No! The birth of my children…!” And then the tears welled up again. – David O’Sullivan
RIP James Small (1969-2019)
From Springbok Rugby
Former Springbok wing James Small, a member of the 1995 Rugby World Cup winning squad, has died suddenly from a heart attack on Wednesday.
The 50-year-old Small was rushed to hospital in Johannesburg on Tuesday night after suffering from a suspected heart attack.
Mr Mark Alexander, President of SA Rugby, passed on his condolences to Small’s family and friends.
“James, as a member of the triumphant Rugby World Cup squad from 1995, will always have a special place in the hearts and minds of the South African public and we were devastated to hear of his passing,” said Mr Alexander.
“He always played with the type of passion and courage that encapsulate what Springbok rugby stands for, and he lived his life in the same way.
“At 50 years old, James Small died too young. Our thoughts and condolences are with his family and friends during this very sad time.”
After losing to NSW in Australia in '93 James came to me, doing commentary with Quirkie, said; the team needs "gees" we organised a boat trip the following day with a guitar and lots of beer, the next Sat the Sprinboks beat Aus. Always a favourite moment he said! RIP James Small
— Schalk Burger (@skalabrak) July 10, 2019
Small made his debut for the Springboks against New Zealand in Johannesburg in 1992 and played in 47 Tests until 1997. He scored 20 Test tries, with the last of those in his final match in the Green and Gold, against Scotland – a try which, at that stage, broke Danie Gerber’s Test record.
In total, Small donned the Green and Gold 60 times, scoring 27 tries. He played Tests against New Zealand, Australia, Western Samoa, Fiji, France, Italy, Romania, England, Scotland, Argentina and the British & Irish Lions.
I'm shocked and v saddened to hear about James Small. Not the easiest oke to ref on the field but one of the kindest off it. Amazing self belief and always keen to challenge, its probably what made him special. A hero, a great Bok, a friend.. RIP Bro. You made the most of life!
— Jonathan Kaplan (@RefJK) July 10, 2019
In his provincial career, Small played for the Golden Lions (then Transvaal), Sharks (then Natal) and Western Province, appearing in Currie Cup finals for all three sides and lifting the coveted golden cup in the colours of the Sharks and WP, but never with the Golden Lions.
In recent years, Small turned to coaching, and assisted Robert du Preez at NWU-Pukke and the Leopards before joining Pirates in Johannesburg as assistant coach.
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