DURBAN – An enduring memory of James Small in his last appearance in a Springbok jersey was his lusty singing of Flower of Scotland at Murrayfield in Edinburgh in 1997.
As belligerent and difficult as Small could be on the field of play, he was big-hearted and deeply emotional off it, and that day the sentimentalist in him could not resist the popular Scottish national anthem.
He then proceeded to score two sparkling tries in what turned out be one of the Springboks’ best ever performances, a 68-10 annihilation of the Scots that was a fitting farewell to a truly great Bok.
Small’s Springbok career had started five years earlier when he was on the right wing in the Boks’ first post-isolation Test, against the All Blacks at Ellis Park.
In that epic match, the Springboks were outclassed for much of the game before fighting back to within three points of the Kiwis, and as time ticked away the Boks had a golden opportunity to win the game when Small was unmarked out on the touchline near the New Zealanders’ try-line, only for his youthful over-eagerness to cause him to spill a pass from Danie Gerber, with South Africa going on to lose the match 27-24.
Small was devastated by his mistake but he shrugged it off and came back a better player. And three years later, at the same venue and against the same opponents, came Small’s finest hour in the green and gold, his halting of the Jonah Lomu juggernaut that had been expected to spearhead an All Black victory in that 1995 World Cup final.
Imagine being in Small’s boots going into that final? He had arguably rugby’s toughest ever assignment. Lomu, as former England captain Will Carling so aptly said was “a freak.” He had been a sensation at that World Cup, scoring seven tries in the lead up to the final including an incredible four in the semi-final the week before against England, which had seen him scatter defenders at will.
Small, in the No 14 jersey for SA, had the direct job of marking the All Black No 11. Famously, Lomu did not score that day (nor did he ever against the Boks, a remarkable anomaly in his glittering career) and the New Zealanders were eclipsed 15-12.
Of course, Small had plenty of help in stopping Lomu, notably from another sadly departed Springbok, Joost van der Westhuizen, but it would be fair to say that his tenacity and bravery that day embodied the incredible resolve the Boks showed that day.
Small wore his heart on his sleeve that day and every occasion he played for his country. Sometimes, though, his emotions got the better of him. In 1992, English referee Ed Morrison sent him off the field in a Test match in Australia, the first time a Bok had ever been red carded.
In all, Small played 47 Tests for the Boks between 1992 and 1997, scoring 20 tries, with a win percentage of 61.7.
Small, who had started his career with Transvaal before playing most of his rugby for the Sharks, followed by two seasons with Western Province, concluded his career back where he started, at the Lions.
SA Player of the Year nominee: 1993
Member of the World Cup-winning Bok squad: 1995
Currie Cup winner: 1995, 1996 (Sharks) and 1997 (WP)
Top try-scorer in the Super 12: 1996