The Glory of '95: James Small - the big persona of Springbok rugby
It was in the early ‘90s 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 Sharks hero 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 a sensational career for a youngster that went on to be one of the true heroes of the 1995 World Cup triumph ... who can imagine the pressure on his shoulders as he lined up to mark the Jonah Lomu juggernaut in the final?
There was another occasion when Mac had a late night knock on his door in New Zealand. It was 1994 and the Boks were touring New Zealand and Andre Joubert had been dropped for Theo van Rensburg.
Mac opened his door to find Small, with tears in his eyes, imploring him to reverse his “error” of judgement.
Also on that tour, Small himself was dropped and for a week he made it very clear to Mac that he was highly pissed off. But after a week of sulking, late on the Friday night before the Test match, Small presented himself at Mac’s door with an apology and a Maori figurine that symbolised good luck.
That was quintessentially 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 well 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 when the red mist had cleared.
It is fair to say that 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 likewise died way too young, there was in hindsight something foreboding about the 20-year-old Small that 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 10m, Small sarcastically sniped: “Well done, well done... why don’t you just give them a try.”
It was nothing more than backchat yet the pompous English ref sent Small from the field - and quite possibly because of Small’s reputation of being a player that was notoriously difficult to referee.
It would not be the first time that 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, he was pinched on the bum (by the girlfriend of a SA champion wave skier called Ian MacLeod), who when Small reacted proceeded to clout Small on the back of the head, assuming that his girlfriend had been the innocent party.
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 and the chance to reach 50 caps.