Former Springbok lock Bakkies Botha says James Small will always be remembered as "one of the best". Photo: Twitter / Bakkies Botha
Cape Town – Legendary Springbok rugby player James Small has died of a suspected heart attack.

His mother, Vaughn Small, told Netwerk24 that one of the heroes of the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory died on Wednesday around noon, supposedly in his Cape Town home.

However, the gentlemen's club The Harem in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, said Small, who was a regular patron of the club, was having a few drinks at the bar while he waited for a date when he collapsed on Tuesday night, Beeld reported.

The Harem denied reports that Small, according to Rapport, was found naked and unconscious at the club and had to be rushed to the Life Bedford Gardens Hospital by a staff member on Tuesday night. Police are investigating the circumstances surrounding his death.

"We suspect it was a heart attack but it hasn't been confirmed yet," his mother said.

Small lived with his daughter Ruby in Johannesburg and the 14-year-old's mother and Small's former wife is the well-known actress and model Christina Storm.

Small, who was born in Cape Town and has an older sister, Kelly, also has a 9-year-old son, Caleb, from another relationship. Storm remarried and has three other children with Paul Nel, who told Die Burger she has rushed from their Eastern Cape home to be with her daughter Ruby in Johannesburg.

The so-called bad boy of rugby made his Test debut for the Springboks in 1992 against New Zealand. The former Stormers, Sharks and Lions wing represented his country in 47 Tests and played his last international in 1997.

He is the fourth member of the 1995 Rugby World Cup team to have died – coach Kitch Christie died from cancer in 1988; loose forward Ruben Kruger died from brain cancer in 2010; and scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen from motor neurone disease in 2017.

A no-nonsense player on the field, Small, who in contrast was a deep-thinking individual off the field, scored 20 tries for the Boks and made history on three 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); and being the first Bok to be sent off in a Test match (20-28 defeat to Australia in Brisbane in 1993).

Well-known radio and TV journalist David O'Sullivan touchingly wrote on BizNews: "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…

"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."

Former Springbok player and coach Rudolf Straeuli has described the sudden passing of former teammate and friend Small as being “like losing a brother” and wants rugby fans to know that the sometimes controversial winger had a big, soft heart.

“James would be the last guy on the field signing autographs and meeting the fans. He wanted everyone to be happy,” Straeuli, chief executive of the Golden Lions, told The Star.

“He also used to give all the PA ladies a bunch of flowers when he left a union. He was a man with a soft, kind heart; not always what you saw in the media or on TV. 

"James was also a great rugby player and team man; he had so much energy, and so much enthusiasm… he’ll be missed.”