/ 25 February 2024

James Small went large in rugby, in life – and even his death

Tl 1103272 Min
Maybe it’s excessive to say James Small lost his life before he died. Maybe it’s more genteel to say he misplaced a life, in the way you might misplace your car keys or gym bag.

There was something darkly comic about James Small losing his life in a strip joint. Some of us might have lost other things — our virginity, our wallets, our self-respect, we might even have lost our mates or our marriages in strip joints — but Small wasn’t a small gestures kind of guy. He was all in.

And there he was, at The Harem strip club in Bedfordview, a Johannesburg suburb, having his ticker call time on a life he seemed to lose long before he dropped dead. 

Maybe it’s excessive to say he lost his life before he died. Maybe it’s more genteel to say he misplaced a life, in the way you might misplace your car keys or gym bag. 

Maybe we should be more respectful of an old Springbok. Except that Small was a man of the world and it’s surely not necessary to tug our forelocks too hard. 

He enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh and the trappings of rugby success, so I think it’s pretty okay to talk about him losing his life before he finally keeled over. 

The alternative is to be all faux tasteful about it, which seems disingenuous, and peddles the untruth that Small and his life got back together again, and everything was just dandy, which was hardly the case. 

He’d surely have a mordant chuckle at the environment in which he finally went tits up, although I think we can all agree that use of the words “mordant chuckle” was probably beyond him, so he might not have had a mordant chuckle at all. 

He might, though, have a good laugh at himself and given himself a high five at the way he decided to go. It was quite a big moment, in a blazingly trashy, You magazine kind of way, although, equally, it was quite a Small moment, in a blazingly trashy, You magazine kind of way. 

None of us are being disrespectful, I don’t think, in shaking our heads and laughing. If he was being honest, James might have had a good laugh at himself himself.

Small statistical point: did James score the night he died — if you’ll forgive the pun, a question which is, I’m sure you’ll recognise, purely rhetorical? Was the hanky-panky a first-phase kind of thing from a good line-out ball, or one involving patient build-up over many phases? 

Not being intimately acquainted with either The Harem (or strip clubs in general), I can’t say for sure, although I like to think that Small didn’t score his try in the corner, far away from prying eyes, but right under the posts, where the entire club could see him. 

Way to go, James.

As an extension of the above point about scoring, would the rugby statisticians categorise it as a domestic or an international try? 

I know enough about strip clubs to know that they’re sometimes full of women from Eastern European lands, so an international score is my preferred option. 

Question is — does a try against Bulgaria qualify as an international try? Tricky one that, given Bulgaria’s below-average record in the international game, and one sure to have the stats guys scampering like, well, punters in a strip club who have temporarily mislaid their boxers. 

Small’s rugby life was filled with such vitality, such meaning, is it any wonder that he misplaced his second life? Maybe life after rugby somehow lacked intensity and meaning? 

Let’s not forget that Small was part of the first Springbok team in 11 years to play international rugby when the Boks took on the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 1992. 

He didn’t score a try in the World Cup in 1995 but he sorely tested Jonah Lomu’s patience by holding on to him like a punchy Jack Russell terrier whenever he could. 

We forget that Small won the Currie Cup with three different provinces: Transvaal, Western Province and Natal. 

After you’ve come face to face with a runaway train like Lomu, the rest of your life is just a pale shadow of your barnstorming first half.

After discovering that you and your life have gone their separate ways, who wouldn’t spend half a lifetime trying to get back together again? I know I would. I’d want my life back. 

I’d sure as hell want my life and I to get along, so we could be together again like old times. Old times are, of course, the best of times and the cliché holds for Small, I think, far more than it does for most.

Small tried as best he could to get back together with his life, he really did. Only his life was rugby, and the mateship and intensity and adrenaline surge of rugby. After the rugby had gone, he tried everything. Modelling. Restaurants. Booze. Sex. Drugs. Sometimes he’d try all five on the same day. 

At one stage Small was a partner in an advertising agency. He even rode a Harley-Davidson motorbike, sometimes with his shirt off. I’ve always thought a Harley was a camp accessory for such a macho guy but Small was clearly prepared to try anything to get his old life back. 

Try as he might, though, nothing else mattered. Or nothing else mattered as much. He and his life went their separate ways, into — we might say — new lives, which made reconciliation difficult, if not practically impossible. 

The strip-joint part of Small’s death wasn’t the only thing that tickled my fancy. While in the club that winter’s night, the official version of events says that he had a heart attack, although it is germane to the record to point out that when he arrived at the hospital he was butt naked. 

To “have a heart attack” has always been one of those phrases that confuses me because it can give the impression that the heart is being attacked by forces outside of it. 

Thing is, the heart attacks itself. There’s something weirdly appropriate with Small’s heart attacking itself because, more than any other organ in his body, Small was all heart. He was the least cold-blooded kind of guy that I ever knew of because he was so scandalously, so completely, heartfelt. To say he was his heart is in no way being hyperbolic. 

True, Small’s body had taken a beating over the years, but I’ll venture that his heart had to deal with the really serious wear and tear. His heart was always being broken. His heart was always on the line. His heart was always under siege. 

Although perhaps it is better (and more accurate) to say Small’s heart was always on his sleeve. He’s one of the few guys whose heart functions best outside of his body. He wore it there all the time. 

You didn’t have to try very hard — you could actually see it. It was there in the way he sang the national anthem, in the way he played his rugby. There’s a clip after the World Cup final in 1995 of Small, alone, with the William Webb Ellis Cup held aloft, shiny and gold in his right hand, while he stabs his index finger of his left hand at the sky. 

Small is saying something to God. Whether anyone is listening or not has bothered minds far better than mine for an eternity but let’s just say that Small was making a point. 

He was pointing up there and telling whoever is up there that the Springboks, after having been out of international sport for so long, aren’t to be trifled with. They’re back. And Small is back with them.   

After his heart attack, Small was brought to the Bedford Gardens Hospital, a hospital I knew well, because after she had a stroke in 2014, my late mother, Cecily, went there for a gallbladder infection. 

She recovered from the infection but she never recovered from the stroke, never spoke another sentence and quietly meandered away to her death in silence. 

On the day of her discharge from Bedford Gardens, I went to fetch her, so she could convalesce in our home because her house had just been sold. 

About 10 days later, the two of us were walking in our garden, she holding my arm. It was winter and the trees were bare. 

She indicated that she wanted to sit down and I helped her. She sat down on the stone wall of a raised bed in which a fine, old walnut tree grew. The tree was surrounded by irises, so thickly clustered that she could bend backwards into them so they made a kind of pillow. It was the last time I saw her with even a semblance of happiness in her eyes.  

Our house was about 2km from the Bedford Gardens Hospital. We lived in the suburb of Kensington, adjacent to Bedfordview. The fact that Small died close to where I lived isn’t in any way important, not objectively so, but we humans make connections. We make stories in our heads and this story is a story about how close Small felt to me and a generation of kids who grew up in Johannesburg in the 1980s and 1990s.  

Small was born on 10 February, 1969 so, had he been alive today, he would have celebrated his 55th birthday a couple of weeks ago. His birthday — had he been alive — was the occasion I used to write this appreciation, pay my respects and have a little bit of fun at his expense at the same time. 

I’ve always wanted to write meaningfully about Small because he was representative of a time, as he was representative of a type of man. He seemed to exemplify a distinctive place and time and age. 

Part of that was a kind of animal defiance, a defiance that served him well as a rugby player, but probably a quality that was less useful in the post-rugby life that he set about losing with such pathos.

I must be careful here. I never interviewed Small. I heard and read about him from colleagues. But none of this meant that I didn’t in some small way feel a kinship with him. 

First, Small was very Johannesburg, as I am and will always be, although I live in the city no longer. 

He spoke like a Joburger, for one thing, and he acted like a slightly boorish Joburg gym bro, for another. It’s almost possible to pinpoint his accent exactly — part Greenside, part Northcliff, part Parkview. 

It was a harsh accent, without inflection or softness. And it told you not only what was there — what you could actually hear about the man — but told you something of what was behind the man, too.

As a Joburger growing up in the dying days of apartheid, Small would have felt insecure as part of an outcast white minority. I’m not sure whether that insecurity would have been rampant or mild but here’s the thing. He was English-speaking in a predominantly Afrikaans game. 

His name was James, James for god’s sake, not Jannie or Jan. He went to an urban, co-ed school not famed for its rugby. He played first for Transvaal, neither a powerhouse of the north or south, a province that could blow hot as easily as it could blow cold. 

There was always that feeling with Small — real or imagined — that because of where he came from he had to fight just that little bit harder to get to where he needed to go. 

This social backlighting, if you will, conspired to mean that he over-compensated. He was always meaner, that bit harder, that bit more foul. The chip he carried on his shoulder was there for all to see along, of course, with the heart he wore so successfully on his sleeve. 

He was the first Springbok upon readmission to get red-carded, by English referee Ed Morrison, for dissent in the second Test against Australia in 1993. It was sometimes difficult for him to walk the thin line between arousal and thuggery. His mouth was sometimes more foul than his play.  

Interesting this, because his non-rugby life is characterised by an almost complete lack of mouth. Small was inarticulate to a fault. He could hardly get a word out. I sometimes felt that all that heart — all that feeling — would simply overwhelm him. 

There was so much feeling in the man. He was like a feeling time bomb. A hurricane of feeling. All that rage and love and anger and hurt. Small had so much of it. No wonder his heart burst.

Small seemed hurt in the way boxers seem hurt. He seemed primordially hurt, as though he was a dumb beast, who’d been dragging his hurt around with him since the beginning of time. 

The hurt was exaggerated by where he played, which was sometimes at full-back but mainly on the wing. 

Being a wing is a lonely position, part goalkeeper, part opening batsman. You sometimes don’t even see the ball. Your only reason you have contact with your team is because you’re wearing the same colour jersey. Being out on the wing — being so out on a limb — compounds your loneliness, which compounds your capacity for hurt.

Small was so hurt that he was always looking to be hurt again. I don’t remember ever seeing him miss an up-and-under. He was always steadfastly brave. He never flinched and seldom missed a tackle. 

It was always curious to me to ask (in a slightly academic way, admittedly) whether he played rugby because he was hurt or whether he played rugby to get hurt just a little bit more.

Even when Small smiled, he looked hurt. When he grimaced, he looked hurt; when he scowled — quite a regular occurrence in the Small emotional repertoire — he looked devastatingly hurt. 

The hurt is what did it for the gals. Not the soft-porn photoshoots or the shirts-off thing on Harleys. The girls just loved the whiff of damage. For all his chiselled good looks, Small often conveyed the idea — unconsciously, I think — that he was really just a little boy playing the most grown-up of manly games.

I only saw Small smile unabashedly once. It was when he shook Nelson Mandela’s hand and, for a sweet instant, he left the hurt behind. He’s smiling at Madiba glowingly, without holding anything back or being on the defensive. He could occasionally be like that, Small. It was rare. And, because of that, it was beautiful.

I remember once trawling through YouTube on a slow Tuesday afternoon, looking for something but nothing in particular, which is a sure way to find yourself down the merry YouTube rabbit hole. 

This allowed me to forget what I was looking for until, by finding some of the very things for which I wasn’t looking, I remembered what I had clambered into the murky underworld of the internet for in the first place. 

I find that finding what you’re not looking for is an incredibly useful aide-memoire in your quest for what you’re searching for, don’t you? It is convoluted, sure. But it isn’t always fun to take the straight line to get from A to B, sometimes you need to take the underground line, or the route that takes in D, E and F.

Anyway, it was one of those dumb-shit afternoons in which time moves like syrup and even the air bubbles with ennui, when I stumbled upon a match between the Springboks and the French Barbarians or France “B” in about 1992 or 1993. At the end of the game, Small took off his Springbok jersey and walked across to Serge Blanco, the great French full-back, and asked Blanco if he wanted to swap his blue for Small’s green. 

No one ever refuses the offer of a swapped jersey, have you noticed? It’s the one ritual in sport that remains unsullied by everything else. 

There can be trash-talk and bombast and pantomime, the regular Punch and Judy show, but jersey-swapping remains as basic a ritual of respect as touching a fist or shaking a hand or tossing a coin.

And so, yes, Blanco swapped his blue France “B” jersey with Small’s green one and the two exchanged words. I’m sure Small wasn’t loquacious but, hey, who needed words? The gesture spoke volumes. It was loud and clear.

I’ve looked and looked for the clip ever since, without ever being able to find it, which makes me think that I might have imagined it. 

Come to think of it, Small’s entire career feels a little imagined nowadays. This isn’t only because Small was so silent, because there are so few words around Small, but because although he died less than five years ago, he seemed to die a very long time ago indeed. 

The Springboks have won the World Cup twice since he died. Every win puts distance between himself — and his rugby achievements — and the present. Some of his former Bok teammates, such as Joost van der Westhuizen and Ruben Kruger, have died, too, which serves to further drag the 1995 World Cup victory back into the mists of another century. 

It was a time when the livery on the tailfin of a 747 was still orange and there was an endless kerfuffle about emblems and anthems. The first horrible spasm of load-shedding, a phrase nobody had yet had the misfortune of hearing, was a full 12 years away. “Cadre deployment” was but a phrase in a textbook. 

If asked, most people would have answered that Covid-19 was something from the realms of cutting-edge dystopian fiction.

A new generation knows nothing about Small, except as a guy on the highlights packages who often slammed the ball down with one hand after he’d crossed the opposition try-line. 

To them, he’s just someone who played rugby, not the exemplar of a particular time and place rooted specifically in the Joburg of the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

He didn’t spend the time afterwards enjoying what he had earned but spent his time looking for ways not to waste his time. It was part of his tragedy, quite a compelling tragedy as it turns out, although you have to be attuned to the tragedy in such things to see tragedy there at all.

For all of the bad-boy schtick, Small played his game in the last age of rugby innocence. He witnessed the turn to professionalism, and embraced it, but for much of his career he was an amateur. He was also an innocent in a far more fundamental way. Small could never be accused of cynicism. He was too whole-hearted for that.

The South Africa in which he played was innocent, too. Mandela kept us innocent. Hope kept us innocent. And we kept ourselves innocent, for why should we be otherwise?

It’s strange to think about Small and innocence in the same sentence because, superficially at least, the two seem incompatible. But there was a lack of guile with Small. And it went hand in hand with a kind of purity, a purity that could, on occasion, be ugly. 

That such damaged purity should end up dead, naked in a strip club, is odd, strange, grotesque. It is also comforting, because you sense it was the kind of way that Small and his big heart would have wanted to go. 

Way to go, James.