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.
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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