WATCH | Springbok stars pay tribute to 'rebel' James Small

18 July 2019 - 14:59 By Nico Gous
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James Small was probably the first rebel in SA rugby - and was loved for it.

So says former World Cup-winning lock Victor Matfield, who was speaking on the sidelines of Small's memorial on Thursday.

"Everyone loved him for that, because he was himself. He didn't want to be anyone else. There was probably a strong Afrikaans-driven part in SA rugby and he was a soutie from Joburg.

"He was just himself: sometimes difficult, sometimes awesome to be around. But, ja, he made a difference."

About 400 people attended the memorial service, held on the rugby fields of The Wanderers in Johannesburg.

Matfield recalled when he was in matric on his way to joining the Blue Bulls when the 1995 Rugby World Cup was held in SA - and how Small's legendary tackle on All Blacks winger Jonah Lomu fuelled his dream.

"The year 1995 was an inspiration for all of us and for the whole country," he said.

Matfield first met Small when he played for the Cats as a youngster, and knew no one.

"James was the first to call me over and say, 'Come sit here.' And we started chatting. At night when the team went out for a beer, he would call my room and say, 'Come, you're part of the team'."

The memorial got under way shortly after 2pm. Some of the Springboks who attended were James Dalton, Kobus Wiese, Pierre Spies, Rudolf Straeuli, John Smit, Stefan Terblanche.

Current Springbok captain Siya Kolisi was also there, as was Small's ex-wife, Christina Storm.

James Small's coffin is carried in ahead of his memorial service in Johannesburg on Thursday July 18 2019.
James Small's coffin is carried in ahead of his memorial service in Johannesburg on Thursday July 18 2019.

The 2007 World Cup winning Springbok flyhalf Butch James said he went to Kings Park in Durban to watch Small play as a child. They became friends when James joined the Sharks as a youngster.

"He had just finished a game and we were actually hanging over the wall of their changing room. I asked him for a pair of his socks to try and get some memento of him and he was kind enough to give them to me," James said.

"You get to meet your heroes and more often than not, you’re let down by what they are, but James was different. He was such an unbelievable human being. For me he was way bigger a legend off the field than on the field. He was true to himself. If he didn’t like you, you knew about it, and if he did like you also knew about it. He was a really honest guy and he wore his heart on his sleeve."

James added: "If you were sitting having coffee and he was driving past he would do a u-turn and come back just to say hello."

Asked if he would rather take on Small or All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, James picked the Kiwi.

"I never got to play against James, but I got to play against Lomu and Lomu was tough enough, so I’m glad he (Small) had retired by the time I started playing."

World Cup-winning hooker James Dalton described Small’s death as an "incredible loss".

"The worst part was that it was all of a sudden. It comes as a massive, massive shock … He was an incredible team man and he lived for the Springbok emblem," Dalton said.

"Take each day on its own, enjoy your days, enjoy your life, be kind to each other and think of what you say and how you say it."

Former Springbok and 1995 World Cup team manager Morné du Plessis recounted in a video message played at the memorial how deeply Small was affected by the team’s visit to Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island.

"James sat in Madiba’s cell and he contemplated the fact that the man whose only crime was to fight for social justice and was willing to die for that. As James was always wearing his heart on his sleeve, he wept openly and I know it had a profound effect on all of us."

Du Plessis quoted English football legend Bobby Robson as saying: “A man does not die. He only dies when the last person who loved him dies. And we all loved James.”

Radio DJ and TV presenter Darren Scott recounted Small’s love for music, which included him asking for certain songs, including Def Leppard, to be played in the morning when he dropped his kids at school.

“7am is news time, I would tell him. 'I don’t care,' he would say,” Scott said.

"Music was a massive part of James’s live and he would have been devastated to learn of the passing of another great South African this week as well - Johnny Clegg,” Scott said.

"James was 180km/h in a 60 zone. He was also Jimmy Buffett wasting away in Margaritaville. He was Jack Johnson and then he could also be Def Leppard, at times touching on Rage Against the Machine.”

Former Springbok captain Gary Teichmann said Small’s advice to young players was to "be an individual and surround yourself with like-minded people".

"That’s exactly what he did," he said.

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