Where’s the James in small wings?

Devin Hermanus

Within a week, South Africans mourned the passing of musician Johnny Clegg and former sportsmen Marc Batchelor and James Small. They were all hailed as warriors in their respective disciplines, arguably none more so than Small.

Small, who died of a heart attack on July 10, was part of the Springbok team that won the 1995 Rugby World Cup on home soil. He played 47 Tests between 1992 and 1997, scoring 20 tries, and also represented Transvaal, Natal Sharks, Western Province and the Stormers.

On and off the field, the rebellious winger was seldom far from controversy, and on the Bok tour of Australia in 1993, he became the first Bok player to be sent off – for dissent. But during a time when wearing a gum-guard was a sign of weakness, Small earned respect for his “no guts, no glory” approach to the game.

Small never lacked for self-belief despite his relatively modest dimensions (1.82m/ +-85kg). He was a Dillyn Leyds-sized No 14 in the 90s before rugby was at the mercy of the safety police and players at the bottom of a ruck were at the mercy of those on top of them.

And yet we don’t remember Small as an undersized, attack-only back. So what is it that separates a “small” James from SA’s current crop of tramline cruiserweights?

Monster backs Ben Lam and Waisake Naholo have manhandled the likes of Leyds and the diminutive Cheslin Kolbe, but Small would’ve backed himself against the current Kiwi widemen.

Who can forget his ’95 heroics to help the Boks stop the All Blacks’ juggernaut, Jonah Lomu? Small also memorably took down Lomu during the 1996 Super 12 final between Natal and the Auckland Blues.

Aphiwe Dyantyi, a serial blitzer, should watch videos of Small, who could effectively turn defence into attack. He scored a superb try against the run of play during the third Test between the Boks and Wallabies in 1993, dislodging the ball after making a well-timed spot tackle, before he secured possession and linked up with fullback André Joubert with a neat one-two interchange.

Small often used to pop up in midfield or on either wing, in support of his national and provincial teammates Joubert, Chester Williams, Percy Montgomery and Pieter Rossouw.

Wingers like Small didn’t just score tries, and the speedster always looked for work off the ball. Makazole Mapimpi and S’bu Nkosi, both named to start for the Boks in their 2019 Rugby Championship opener against the Wallabies at Ellis Park, fortuitously embody Small’s determination and grit.

One of Clegg’s greatest hits, Impi, has become a rallying cry for the Bokke. May its rendition before this weekend’s clash with the Aussies rouse the James Small in South Africa’s speedsters.

FRESH TAKE is an initiative to identify, feature and develop talented rugby writers who are not yet part of the mainstream media. If that sounds like you, send us a sample of a story you’d like to write to info@alloutrugby.com

Devin Hermanus works in the SA media industry, repeated Grade 1, takes Tae Bo classes for self defence, and believes Riaan Cruywagen is actually a vampire. Follow him on Twitter: @DevinMyles11

- Devin Hermanus

Let's chat

  • chris

    To be fair, Kolby embaresses those big backs with stepping them way more times than missing tackles.
    I don’t remember any missed tackles from Kolby ever causing tries any more than anyone else, so I looked up the stats.
    Complete nonsense as I expected.
    80kg Kolbe tackle stats for Toulouse is 81%.
    100kg Waisake Naholo tackle stats is 71%
    100kg Ben Lam tackle’s at 73%

    Kolbe avg. 32m gained per game!
    Naholo avg. 6m
    Lam avg. 10m

    When Pollard (also 82% tackle rate btw.) misses a tackle its just a stat but when a small guy does the same the commentators make an issue out of the size mismatch without even knowing the guys overall stats compared to other players.

    • Herman Schroder

      I assume you are comparing Naholo and Lam’s SR stats with Kolbe’s club stats over the same amount of games. I also assume your ‘small guy’ comment includes Elton. Cheers.

  • Barry

    Chris I don’t have a big issue with size – fast attacking players generally are a bit smaller, but there are limits. At 74 kgs it’s unrealistic expecting him to stop a player of 90 kgs plus!

    You must surely remember his game against the All Blacks last year- he was unceremoniously brushed aside into touch, which resulted in a try!

    • chris

      Yet Naholo and Lam misses more tackles ?
      Are they maybe too big to play wing ?

      A big guy gets beaten by a small guy’s inside step, because he’s a gorilla gets excused while a small guy getting run over once should be banned from international rugby.
      Same 5 points results from both btw.

      And we are surprised that our player skills lag behind almost all the top 8 teams. We don’t select for it.

  • Dean Bright

    When it comes to tackling it’s not about size, it’s about technique. Breyton Paulse was a very good tackler. Cullen, Jason Robinson, James Small, Shane Williams etc. Are you telling me size makes a difference? Well then tell me how is Faf our best defender, and he tackles everybody.

    • Barry

      Faf has 14 kgs on Kolby and tackles at close quarters not out wide at pace!

  • Dean Bright

    Oom rugby – John Allan??

  • Wesley

    Barry it seems you have a thing against small wingers that may miss one or two tackles in wide channels, would you then call Naholo or Lam poor defenders looking at the stats, size be damned? Perhaps reason Naholo being dropped from the AB squad? Theres pros and cons in every battle on the field and game plans can negate of exacerbate both, like dean and chris says here, either you have a rampaging large wing busting over smaller players no matter the heart, or you have those same little wingers stepping the hell out of those big lumpies out wide. Its a team sport. And one missed tackle doesnt make you weak. It just exposes those who already have a certain agenda against those players. Good example is Kwagga when he was fended off and sent flying by Laumape(?) was it? Media was ranting and many came out to say hes too small. Oh yes no matter the many many guys he bumped off much bigger than he is. No matter the rampaging runs and hard tackles he has put in before. That one thing defined him as a player for weeks… Why? I could tell you. Agendas. Time we put our agendas aside, especially supporting the Boks. Rant over thanks….

    • Barry

      Wesley, I made my position fairly clear on this earlier, but you seem to have missed it, so here’s the repeat

      Chris I don’t have a big issue with size – fast attacking players generally are a bit smaller, but there are limits. At 74 kgs it’s unrealistic expecting him to stop a player of 90 kgs plus!

      I would rather have skill and pace than brawn, but physics will tell you that there’s a point when the mismatch is just too great and becomes unfeasible. The debate on where that point is, would be a bit nebulous, but I suspect a 30% variance in body mass is probably a fair rule of thumb.

      There are other problems – Herschel Jantjies is the same weight but shorter, though probably less vulnerable at 9. Put him against Thom Perenara at 6’ and 94 kgs vs 5’6” and 74 kgs seems a bit unfair doesn’t it.

      No disregard at all for the tenacity that they show. They are fine athletes, but to my mind fall just outside the viability stakes.

      Kwagga Smith is not really a great example – he’s just on 6’ and mid 90’s kg. He’s not such a small guy!

      Good luck to them both, let hope I’m wrong! If nothing else, we’ll have the smallest guys at the World Cup – certainly a first for South Africa!

      • Dean Bright

        If physics is a factor then explain the 1995 RWC final. How did Small at 89kg and Japie Mulder at 84kg stop Lomu at full pace who was 125kg. Your argument is full of holes. That’s a difference of 41kg between Japie and Lomu. Ioane at 113kg and Kolbe at 74kg, 39kg difference. It really doesn’t matter at the end of the day, it’s about technique. Lastly, how about the Japan win against us in the last RWC. Yes, we were beaten by guys far smaller than us. LOL

        • Barry

          Have a look at the video clip of Small showing Lomu around Eli’s Park. In the video, he explain the strategy that they had in place to contain Lomu. It will give you the explanation you’re looking for.

          The fact that they had a specific strategy purely to address the gross mis-proportions in player size, would seems to agree with my views on this!

          • Wesley

            Again, you are arguing against your own stance. It comes down to knowing your weakness and plugging the hole, using then the arsenal you have to your disposal effectively amplifying your own chance for victory. Ever read the Art of War? It seems you are confused of your standpoint. In pro rugby, there are no limits to how the difference between opposing positions can be. If you have the goods to bring more to the table than you subtract, you play. Small brought more than any other, so far Kolbe and all the other “too small” guys becoming legend have done the same. If they only showed promise but never cut it, they didnt last long. Same for the big bruisers being one trick ponies. Its not about size. Been proven over and over and over again. You are losing this debate, and it would be smarter to concede.

      • Wesley

        You set a point you dont have a problem, but then argue against it… Not a very good debate position to take. Debate 101.

        • Barry

          Sorry you don’t understand it Wesley. Maybe see if a friend to help explain it?

          • Wesley

            Oh yes, if you suck at a debate, its someone elses problem they dont understand? Hahaha classic.

      • chris

        Kolbe is 80kg btw.
        Kwagga Smith comes in at 90kg
        That’s about 2 cats. (yes I looked it up)

        • Barry

          Why are you looking up cats – a bit quirky!

          Have a look at the player Wiki account, these are updated by their agents. Kolbe 74, Smith 93 Kgs

  • Herman

    Full marks on your Kwagga comment. There’s also the issue of what I call the duckers and divers, players who ‘avoid’ tackling as much as possible. Their stats look great but their commitment can be questioned. Cheers.

  • Redge

    And Etsebeth ran over Bismarck so was Bismarck also to small then? Pat Lambie brushed of Schack Burger, also to small? Same with most black players. As soon as they make a mistake they are called AA players but it’s all good when a white player have a bad games, just a bad day at the office. Absolutely nothing wrong with Kolbe at least he’s exiting and can make things happen. A big fuss was made about why Combrinck was overlooked last year although it was clear he had lost form and his defence was bad. Great pity though as he was great when on form.

  • Nick

    Barry and hernie. I applaud your naive opinionated enthusism but be honest, you havnt played much rugga have you?

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