The Sharks were lining up for the second half kick-off in their match against the Brumbies in 1996 when captain Gary Teichmann noticed they were a man short.
Confused looks to the grandstand of the Bruce Stadium in Canberra revealed a pouting James Small sitting in his tracksuit. He’d had enough... not of the Australians but of his fiery team-mate John Allan, who had earlier ignored play and chased Small about the field because he had called the forwards “pussies”.
It was not the only time that Allan and Small had seen mutual red. At a captain’s practice on the Friday before a match, Small had thrown the ball in from the wing after a dummy run and drilled Allan firmly on the pip, an action the hooker saw as purposeful when it had been accidental.
To the mirth of their team-mates, Allan chased Small up the Kings Park grandstand, until he ran out of puff, with the glowering Small teasing him on from a few levels on.
Those kinds of flare-ups were a dime a dozen in the eventful rugby career of James Terence Small, a complex, overwrought character who was perpetually emotional, mostly misunderstood, and intensely loyal to those he respected.
If he was calling his forwards “pussies”, the amped-up Small would have been attempting to motivate, not insult. He loved his team-mates, almost to a fault, as former Sharks and Springbok coach Ian McIntosh will testify. Mac once told me that Small was the only player he ever coached who asked to be dropped.
It was in the early 1990s and Natal were in Dunedin for a Super 10 match. When Mac announced his team, it had the bombshell of Small replacing Tony Watson, a player who was on an incredible run of 128 consecutive starts for Natal.
That night, Mac had a knock on his door. It was Small who told him: “Mac, you can’t do this. It’s not right, you can’t drop Tony...”
But Mac did, and it was the birth of an incredible career for the youngster who had been only too happy to move to Durban from his native Johannesburg after an uncomfortable time with a Transvaal side he felt made it clear that he was unwelcome in the intense Afrikaans culture in the team at that time, and which was very much at odds with the 18-year-old’s tattoos and earring.
There was another occasion Mac had a late-night knock on his door in New Zealand. It was 1994 and the Boks were touring New Zealand and, injudiciously, André Joubert had been dropped for Theo van Rensburg.
Mac opened his door to find Small, with tears streaming down his face, imploring him to reverse his error of judgement. That was Small in a nutshell. Passionate and emotional about what he believed to be a just cause, and if you messed with his mates you were in trouble.
Incidentally, when Allan and Small finally “connected”, the former became the latter’s protector. One dark night, when Small was up to mischief in a night club, Allan spotted a bouncer following Small into the toilets. The bouncer had Small up against the wall when Allan intervened. As Allan later said: “Suffice to say, that bouncer had a nice sleep in one of the cubicles...”
Again, that was Small. There was nothing he would not do for those he trusted, and for those who got to know the real James, there was nothing they would not do for him.
Those who knew him intimately will tell you that Small’s “bad boy” image was to a large degree contrived by an insecure individual from a broken home in the south of Johannesburg; and that his over-the-top, sometimes arrogant behaviour masked shyness and explained why so often his first reaction was to hit out at detractors, only for him to deliver emotional apologies at a later stage when the red mist had cleared.
Make no mistake, Small’s stubbornness and indignation often translated into pig-headedness. At one Sharks training session I observed, Mac had called an end to the practice by which time Small had strapped himself up to a tractor tyre. Dragging tyres was a post-training fitness task the players voluntarily did.
But Mac, as often was his want, had “one last thing” he wanted to do and this time it was the team doing a run against ghost opposition, with the wing then scoring in the corner.
Small did the entire exercise with the tyre strapped behind him, such was his annoyance at the coach.
It is fair to say that James Small was a rebel both with and without a cause, to borrow from Hollywood legend, and that like the James Dean of that unforgettable movie who died way too young, there was, in hindsight, something eerie about the 20-year-old Small who rolled up at Kings Park on a Harley Davidson for his first training session, clad in leather jacket and hiding behind his customary Ray-ban Wayfarer sunglasses. Small unquestionably cultivated that image, not only off the field where he wanted it to be his barrier to the real world, but also on it, where his verbal battles with referees culminated in him being the first ever Springbok to be sent off in a Test match, in Australia in 1993.
Small had taken umbrage to referee Ed Morrison wrongly (as television footage revealed) penalising scrumhalf Robert du Preez for offside, and when the Boks showed dissent and were marched back 10 metres, Small sarcastically sniped: “Well done, well done... why don’t you just give them a try.” It was nothing more than back-chat. There had been no vulgar swearing, yet the pompous English ref sent Small from the field - and quite possibly because of Small’s reputation as being a player who was notoriously difficult to referee.
It would not be the first time Small’s bad-boy image trumped common sense. In 1994, he was involved in a brawl outside a pub in Port Elizabeth, appropriately called Barney’s Tavern, that probably summed up Small’s misunderstood public persona and his troubled relations with his superiors at the Springboks. Small vehemently testified that as he was walking through the pub when he was pinched on the bum by the girlfriend of an SA champion waveskier called Ian MacLeod, who, when Small reacted, proceeded to clout Small on the back of the head, assuming his girlfriend had been the innocent one.
Small, protesting his innocence, took the matter outside onto the beach, where his fight with Macleod was witnessed, and subsequently reported to Springbok manager Jannie Engelbrecht, the one-time Springbok right wing with whom Small had a long-standing feud.
Conspiracy theory or not, Small was certain that Engelbrecht did not want Small to close in on the latter’s all-time Springbok try-scoring record.
The bottom line, if you will excuse the pun, was that a pinch on Small’s bum cost him a place on the Springboks’ 1994 end-of-year tour to the UK. Later, Small admitted to being seriously embittered that his 50-cap milestone as a Springbok was denied him by his innocent involvement in a nightclub altercation and the over-reaction of a Springbok manager who allegedly had beef with him.
Small’s career with the Boks ended on 47 caps. He would surely have earned at least three more had he been included on that tour. Instead, when his mates were in London, he was in New York, escaping as far as possible from rugby as he could be, he later said.
Incidentally, that week before the Boks played England at Twickenham, assistant coach Brendan Venter had flippantly remarked in a press conference that the players had mistakenly watched the “worst movie ever” in Pulp Fiction, the maverick Quentin Tarantino movie that broke that year.
At that very time, the exiled Small was across the Atlantic watching “my best movie ever”, as he told me in a subsequent interview in which he added that the movie had set the tone for a “hedonistic adventure in the Big Apple”.
A loner in New York while his beloved Springboks were on tour without him sums up the exile status Small felt for much in his life.
It also explains why he was so in touch with the unwanted, especially children. I recall Sharks PR officer Megan Harris telling me that Small was a player who passionately asked to do work with children while other players paid it lip service.
It is in line with what I saw after an interview with Small in a busy Durban street when we were walking to our cars, and I looked back to see him quietly passing a R100 note to a beggar (a small fortune in the ’90s).
And it is mostly in accordance with a tale I was told by a media colleague who had by chance shared a car with Small in a journey across France. It was the time when Eric Clapton had realised Tears from Heaven, his tribute to his four-year-old son who had died accidentally. My friend, hearing sobbing from the back seat, turned around to see the Bok wing with tears streaming down his cheeks as he wept with emotion.
James Small died earlier this week after a heart attack aged just 50.