James Small, who has died at the age of 50, played his rugby at the most momentous time in the history of the South African game.
His first Test match in 1992 was the first for the Springboks at the dawn of the new, internationally acceptable South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC. He was one of the heroes of the Springbok team that won the 1995 Rugby World Cup and he experienced the transition of rugby from a nominally amateur game to one in which its leading players became wealthy professionals.
It was also Small’s fate to be in the vanguard of an era of celebrity sportsmen when events off the field became as much a subject of public curiosity as those between the white lines.
He was involved in an incident in a Port Elizabeth nightclub in 1993 which led to him being dropped from the Springboks, was the first Springbok to be sent off in a rugby Test (for a remark to a referee) and had well-publicised, turbulent relationships with two glamorous models, one of whom, Christina Storm (now Storm-Nel), is the mother of his 14-year-old daughter.
In a 2009 interview with YOU magazine, he admitted assaulting Storm. “I’ve blamed myself for a long time and I want to talk about it… I was hiding away for a long time. I did something wrong and I’ve been man enough to stand and be counted for it,” he told the magazine. He said he was a reformed character and that the birth of his daughter had changed his life.
“Life is not the easiest thing,” Small said in a particularly revealing podcast interview with former British Lions and Transvaal rugby player John Robbie for The Sport Exchange website.
In the interview, recorded in August 2018, Small admitted that he had abused cocaine and alcohol and had “made major mistakes”.
He also gave details of a suicide attempt in 2001, which he admitted was as much aimed at getting attention as it was a genuine attempt to end his life.
“I had just lost the love of my life,” he said, presumably alluding to a break-up with Storm. “I took a lot of cocaine and cut my wrists.” He woke up in a padded cell in Valkenberg psychiatric hospital.
Small’s death, of a suspected heart attack, dominated the front page of Die Burger on Thursday 11 July and was the subject of a full page of articles inside the newspaper, which included tributes from former Springbok teammates, several of whom spoke of a generous nature being an integral part of a complex character.
What is beyond dispute is that Small was an outstanding rugby player. A hard-running, hard-tackling wing, he played in 47 Test matches and scored 20 tries, which was a South African record until it was broken by Joost van der Westhuizen.
His role in marking the giant All Black wing, Jonah Lomu, in the World Cup final would on its own be enough to earn Small a place in a South African rugby hall of fame.
Lomu had rampaged through the tournament and had scored four tries in a semi-final against England, creating one of the indelible memories of the World Cup when he ran straight at and over England’s Mike Catt to score the first try.
Lomu and the All Blacks were unable to breach a resolute Springbok defence in which Small was outstanding. In his interview with Robbie, Small said he saw marking Lomu as an opportunity. His task was to stay wider than usual and “to hold on to this oke” by tackling him above the waist, knowing that his teammates would soon be up in support.
Small said the real hero in the “stop Lomu” campaign was centre Japie Mulder who caught and tackled the All Black wing on the only occasion when Lomu managed to get past the initial line of defence.
Small is the third member of the winning Springbok team to have died relatively young, following Ruben Kruger and Joost van der Westhuizen, while Lomu died in 2015. DM