James Small: The colourful life of one of the Rainbow Nation’s fallen warriors celebrated
They came from way across the horizon to celebrate the rich‚ colourful life of one of the Rainbow Nation’s fallen warriors.
It was perhaps fitting that they congregated inside a marquee overlooking the dusty field where the late James Small and his teammates were so relentlessly knocked into physical shape ahead of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
The then Springbok coach Kitch Christie placed a high premium on fitness and it was to prove the bedrock that helped Small and his fellow 1995 comrades enter the pantheon of South African sporting greats.
The public may be divided on which gates Small entered after dying from a heart attack last week but those inside the marquee attending his memorial at the Wanderers Rugby Club were in no doubt about the space the former wing occupies in their hearts.
Players‚ coaches‚ administrators‚ auctioneers‚ physiotherapists‚ captains of industry‚ marketing gurus‚ among others‚ united in celebrating a life lived to the brim.
There was even a man wearing a weather-beaten Brumbies jersey with a Springbok jacket from 1995 over it.
He possessively held onto a motorcycle helmet.
Of course Small’s 1995 teammates showed up in force with Kobus Wiese and Japie Mulder‚ designated as pallbearers along with former Bok captain Gary Teichmann as well as the team’s erstwhile physiotherapist Evan Speechley.
Other sporting greats were there too.
Former boxing champion Brian Mitchell held court‚ while former batting great Graeme Pollock‚ now at a rich 75 not out slowly but regally strode into the marquee.
Some even flew in for the occasion and at least one person‚ appropriately named Murphy‚ made the trip from Dublin to deliver an Irish Blessing.
The Rainbow Warrior himself‚ former Rugby World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar‚ did not attend and neither did the manager of that side Morne du Plessis.
He‚ however‚ delivered a video tribute from France where he is attending the Toure de France.
“A cocktail of energy and emotion‚” is how he described Small‚ before adding “what I will remember of James was his generosity of spirit.”
Former Bok captain Teichmann delivered a tribute in which he highlighted how Small would zealously defend those he held dear.
“He showed loyalty to those he respected‚” said Teichmann.
The current Springbok captain Siya Kolisi‚ although injured‚ said the team will honour Small when they play the Wallabies at Ellis Park on Saturday.
“He played a huge part in my career when I was young. We will never forget him‚” said Kolisi.
Radio jock Darren Scott‚ a confidant and buddy of Small’s‚ remarked how difficult it was for him to MC the event.
“This is the most difficult job I’ve ever been asked to do‚" he said.
"But it is a huge honour.”
Small’s sister Kelly asked those in attendance not to cry because Small would have wanted it so.
She described how her brother would decide whether he would strike a friendship saying he was gifted “a finely tuned bullsh*t detector”.
“Life will never be the same‚” she added.
The media‚ of course‚ turned up in numbers and some were more welcome than others.
The media group who splashed salacious details of Small’s final hours were pointedly declined an interview by a former Bok captain.
Other outlets‚ especially those in television‚ struggled to conduct their interviews as the alarm of a nearby vehicle sounded intermittently.
Through it all‚ however‚ former Springbok and Sharks coach Ian McIntosh remembered Small as “a one of a kind”. “I think I coached him more off the field than on it‚” said McIntosh.
“I really enjoyed coaching him‚ probably more than anyone else I’ve coached because he gave everything at practice.
"He was a highly strung guy‚ so every time he messed up he’d come and say sorry.
“He was a humble‚ loyal guy. In that documentary about Jonah Lomu where they were both interviewed he said ‘they all know me because of you’. That was great.”
Small’s former Springbok and Cats teammate Werner Swanepoel said he would remember Small’s no nonsense attitude.
“He said what he thought and he did what he thought‚" Swanepoel said.
"If you were looking for a team man who would stand by you‚ whether you are in trouble or not‚ it was James.
"He had the heart of a lion and gave everything to his team and teammates.
“I remember when I started playing with him he would always ask: ‘are you and Rassie (Erasmus) going anywhere?
"Don’t forget about me'."
He said modern players can learn from Small in the way he built team spirit.
“I always say every team has to have a naughty bloke‚" he said.
"And there is a difference between the guys who are naughty and the guys who are wild.
"James was one of the naughty guys and I would probably put myself into that category as well.”