Year’s mind: James Small and the 1995 Rugby World Cup
ASH Smyth reflects on South Africa’s historic 1995 Rugby World Cup win
On Sunday morning, the first big international rugby fixture – All Blacks vs the Wallabies – was played since Covid-19 halted the Six Nations back in early March. This will be followed by the other Bledisloe Cup games, the leftover week and a bit of the Six Nations tournament, an England-Barbarians friendly, and then a veritable smorgasbord of the postponed southern-hemisphere Rugby Championship in about a six-week overlap with a specially-constituted European Autumn Nations Cup, including Georgia and, um, Fiji.
For fans of egg-ball around the world, this will come as an enormous relief.
For the last six months I have been endlessly rewatching just one rugby match. South Africa’s immortal World Cup final win against New Zealand, Ellis Park, 24 June 1995.
The win contributed to the new South Africa and the cause of racial harmony
As a good pseudo-South African, this is one of those “I remember where I was when…” moments. A school cricket match in West Kent, scoring 41* (which isn’t relevant except it was my highest score, and took me 20 years to better it), and someone’s dad had one of those portable TVs that was about 15% screen, plugged into his car’s cigarette lighter. I recall us hurrying off the field, just in time to see Joel Stransky kick what I’d always remembered as his Jonny Wilkinson-style last-minute, World Cup-winning, career- (not to say life-) defining drop-goal.
For a whole range of obvious and well-attested reasons, the iconic result contributed enormously to the new South Africa and to the cause of racial harmony and integration. In the run-up to that moment, though, it must be said, the game itself wasn’t exactly one for the ages. Hell, I realised as I tuned in for the first time, back in April, I didn’t even remember what the final score was. In fact, I don’t think I had ever watched the game.
Many black South Africans still refused to support the Springboks
The first thing you notice is how old everything looks. Or, indeed, is. Francois Pienaar’s rubber takkies, the refs’ moustaches, the commentator’s gentlemanly tones (“we eagerly anticipate a display of sportsmanship and skill, in this, the final contest…”), the synthesizer music, the lycra outfits on the balloon-girls. I doubt many would call Johannesburg “the City of Gold” these days, and even the low-budget Lion King-alike dance show seems like something one might hesitate to do now, let alone with white dancers. The commentary will later mention such new-fangled things as post-protectors, playing advantage, and the off-side rule. But the fact that the Springbok team had just taken a two-day R&R in Sun City may be what really dates it most of all.
Of course, South Africa was a good few years behind the modern world, emerging as it still was, slowly, from its grim apartheid post-war history. Chris Hani had been assassinated only a couple of years before. The rightly celebrated elections of 1994 had nonetheless been heavily overshadowed by internecine violence. Many black South Africans still refused to support the Springboks, considering them a de facto racist emblem. In that context, certain aspects of the opening ceremony, like the military fly-past and the helicopters, still come across as somewhat sinister.
But then Mandela appears, the crowd chant “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!”, they start ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’, and damn if I don’t well up every time.
No-one expected the South Africans to win the cup. Having only been accepted back into world sport in 1992, few players had had much time to establish themselves at the highest level. Two Springboks, ‘Os’ (= Ox) du Randt (“the diesel mechanic from the Free State”) and Chris Rossouw, had never lost a match in national colours; but that was more a mark of inexperience than anything. Others got their debut as subs during the final! Mark Andrews, a lock, ended up playing No.8 for the last two matches of the tournament, for the first time since he was 13. The Springboks as a team were seeded ninth – which should have meant they didn’t make it to the quarters.
They’d had a good start, beating Australia, the reigning champions (who hadn’t lost a match for the last 12 months) in the opening game. From there, they hadn’t had the toughest path in rugby history to the final – facing Romania, Canada, Samoa, and France – and had notched up the best defence stats in the tournament. But even on their best day, no team wants to meet the All Blacks in a final.
As befits the last World Cup before the professional era, most of the numbers were much smaller then. The redoubtable NZ scrum-half Graeme Bachop was equalling someone’s (mere) 29-cap record for the All Blacks in that position. Pienaar, who’d led Transvaal to three domestic trophies in 1993, and been named Rugby World‘s International Player of the Year in 1994, had only played 21 times for his country (albeit all as captain), and four of those since the start of the tournament.
But some of these players would have been legendary at any time. The young Andrew Mehrtens – born in South Africa – was the first player in history to score 100 points in just five matches (it helps to be the kicker for New Zealand, obviously). Chester Williams, the totemic Springbok left wing, had scored 10 tries in his last 7 internationals.
It’s fun to hear absolute man-mountains like du Randt and Garry Pagel being introduced as “young” men at the start of their careers. Others had those unforgettably pre-weathered faces, like Pienaar’s and Sean Fitzpatrick’s, despite being only 28 and 32 respectively. Andre Joubert – who played the final with a broken hand – looks like a hungry wolf.
There are more whose names I recognise but couldn’t have picked out in a line-up (or vice versa, obviously): Kobus Wiese, Hannes Strydom, even the unimprovably-named Zinzan Valentine Brooke. But a lot of these guys were just entirely unknown by me – in part, I think, because the impending professionalism of the sport meant that many (including the biggest guns, like Pienaar and Stransky) moved to Europe shortly afterwards, and so curtailed their international careers. Obviously, the South Africans are my guys here; but Ian Jones? Mike Brewer? Jeff Wilson? These names meant nothing to me.
Which brings us, inexorably, to the player (officially or otherwise) of the ’95 World Cup: New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu, the youngest ever All Black, 1.95m tall and 118kgs, who alone just put four tries past England in the semis, and who was almost guaranteed to lift the Webb Ellis trophy one day. Today, most likely.
Now it’s a bright, blue, winter’s afternoon at Jo’burg altitude, and within the first five minutes it is fairly evident a big chunk of New Zealand’s game-plan is to get the ball out wide to you know whom. “All eyes have been on Jonah Lomu,” declares the commentator, “No.11, the left wing of New Zealand. A terrific footballer…”
James Small had form, on every level
It isn’t immediately going to plan, mind. A bit hilariously, world-class flyhalf Mehrtens’ kick-off doesn’t go the requisite 10 metres. Then Stransky’s penalty response doesn’t find touch. Mehrtens gets first blood, then misses a drop. Stransky slots his own first penalty shot, then Mehrtens pulls one back, then Stransky levels it, before missing another one. With all that final pressure, it was perhaps inevitable this match would involve a lot of kicking in the hope the opposition are the first to make mistakes. But not this much kicking.
At about the 7-minute mark, there’s a cross-field kick from the All Blacks, and “James Small, against Jonah Lomu, [passes] on the inside…”
I don’t really register. But about five minutes later, there’s a second mention, when Mehrtens targets him down “Jonah Lomu’s side” and he responds with an enormous, Campese-style clearance kick. “James Small, of course, who played for South Africa U19, at full back…”
And now my ears pricked up. Who? “South Africa’s most-capped player on the field today, with 23 tests and 10 tries…” Wait. What? Their most-capped player?
It’s true, of course. He was on 23 caps; he had 10 tries to his name; and he was already something of the Springbok’s troubled wunderkind. And yet I don’t recall ever having heard of James Small. So, while I watched the match the third or fourth time, I read up on him.
As a non-Afrikaans player, Small felt discriminated against in SA rugby
James Small had form, on every level. His 1992 debut, in this same stadium, was also against the All Blacks, where South Africa lost by three points. He had been the first Springbok to be sent off for dissent, in a match against Australia, by none other than Ed Morrison, the ref, now, of the ’95 RWC final. He had “retired” from the round-ball code, what’s more, at 17, after being suspended for headbutting another referee. He was also a provincial-level sprinter in high school and had been offered some sort of scholarship to go to university in San Diego, but his working-class family could not afford to send him there. In the end, he didn’t go to university at all.
Small would later go on to associate strongly with the non-white players, saying that as a merely non-Afrikaans player, he felt discriminated against in SA rugby. He was known for being one of the most vocal supporters of the new South Africa, enthusiastically learning the new anthem, and weeping openly in Mandela’s former cell on a team trip to Robben Island. On the day of the final, Mandela himself warmly shook hands with Small before the anthems and reminded him that he had “a big job to do.”
Anyway, now, here he is. That high-shouldered, stiff-legged frame, not dissimilar to, say, Dan Biggar or Elliot Daly these days. The all-round athleticism of Sonny Bill Williams. The face, a cross between Tom Hardy and a leery greyhound. (I don’t recall who played him in Invictus, but it should definitely have been Tom Hardy.) He’s lean, he’s mean, and it’s entirely possible that I’m slightly in love with him.
The No.14’s “big job” for the day is to mark the steam train Lomu. And he achieves it.
Ultimately, Lomu only manages half a dozen serious bursts. The first, about 13 minutes in, comes from an inside pass. The crowd goes wild, but he only makes a few metres before South Africa concede an off-side penalty right in front of the posts. His second comes out of nowhere, down the left wing, beating and/or brushing off a couple of defenders. Thankfully, nothing comes of it. The third, a short run, in the middle of the field. Still nothing. But knowing what he’s capable of, you wince every time somebody gives him the ball.
South Africa have a try ruled held up. Small takes some courageous hits. The match rages from end to end, thanks to the (not always brilliant) kicking. And at half time, the Springboks lead, for the first time in the game, 9-6. The commentators are pleased that the referee hasn’t given “too many penalties” – although the score line doesn’t necessarily reflect that impression.
Early in the second half, Small himself nearly picks up a kick through from Joubert, just metres from the NZ line, but can’t quite manage it. And then, about 20 minutes in, after a kick from Joost van der Westhuizen, and a gather and run from the fresh legs of Marc Ellis, suddenly Lomu is out on the left wing with the ball. He gets past Small, but mercifully it’s been adjudged a forward pass.
As Small and Lomu walk back towards the scrum, offscreen, the commentator records “a friendly little tap of the hand from James Small and Jonah Lomu. They know they’re in a massive contest here today…” It’s a remarkable gesture of respect in the circumstances – though the more I listen to it, the more it sounds like Small affording to be comradely, where he’s just nearly lost the World Cup.
If you ever had to put in one day’s work in life, marking Jonah Lomu out of all usefulness in a World Cup final would be perfectly acceptable. But is it unfair, on closer (and repeated) inspection, to suspect that, as in many a nervy big match, the ’95 final was not Small’s most impressive career performance? Bit scrappy? Couple of naff-looking shirt grabs? Often not the one bringing Lomu down?
That said, no doubt some of this can be attributed to a kind of survivor bias: if Lomu spent the whole match having to avoid James Small then Small’s presence was worth its weight in gold. (The All Blacks, certainly, were also playing a bit of a bluffer’s strategy, Lomu’s main role being to occupy the minds and territory of would-be tacklers, thus leaving full-back Glen Osborne, similarly fast and massive, to take late and unexpected passes down the wing.)
The watershed moment for the renascent nation was the winning of the 1995 World Cup
The clock ticks on, and the game gets messier as the exhausted players make mistakes. A commentator opines that the All Blacks have not played well in the final 20 minutes of a lot of matches. (These days, you wouldn’t bet against NZ scoring a try five minutes into overtime. Just ask the Irish.) Another Mehrtens drop-goal attempt falls short. Small takes a high ball face-to-face with Lomu and wins a penalty. Within seconds, Chester Williams is almost scoring in the All Blacks left-hand corner. Wouldn’t that have been a thing? South Africa’s only black player scoring the only try of the match, 30 seconds into overtime. But the bounce favours New Zealand.
At 80 minutes, the scores are level, 9-9.
In a fraught first half of extra time (10 mins), each side claims another three-pointer. 12-12. And with seven minutes of play left, Joel Stransky scores that drop-goal. A huge one, above the tops of the posts. 15-12. “This will be the longest 7 minutes those 15 players and these 62,000…” but the game has already restarted. Five minutes to go, and the camera zooms in on Small, dragging himself off the field on the far side, like a paralysed soldier.
With just a couple of minutes left on the clock, Stransky lines up to take another pretty standard right-footer’s kick at goal. He takes his time… and pushes it wide. (So much for my schoolboy memory.) The last act of the game is a knock-on by van der Westhuizen.
But South Africa still win, by 3. The Jo’burg crowd goes mad. The national anthem starts to play again and is either stopped or instantly drowned out. Pienaar and the Springboks, subs and coaching staff included, kneel on the ground and pray. He and Stransky embrace. You can see Small dashing about in the background.
The South Africans do a lap of the ground, to a reprise of “World in Union”. Pienaar makes his “43 million South Africans” speech, and then Mandela comes back out, in Pienaar’s No.6 shirt, and hands Pienaar the Webb Ellis trophy, and the event is freeze-framed into history.
They do another lap, with the cup, the tannoy blasting “Shosholoza”. In all the pictures, Small looks like the cocky young hero that he almost certainly was: the one grinning, fooling about, doing the victory signs and rock-star poses. Noticeably younger at heart than many of his countrymen in 1995. No wonder he became a literal poster boy.
A noted scorer of tries, Small did not run in a single one during the 1995 World Cup, which must have been incredibly frustrating for the young warrior. His reputation from that competition depends on his defence, against the French in the semi-final, and then against Jonah Lomu, more or less personally, in the final. He would later be labelled, and by the New Zealanders, ‘the man who won the World Cup.”
The following year, Small was the leading try-scorer in the inaugural Super 12 season. He retired from the national side in 1997, on a total of 47 caps, and 20 tries – overtaking, in his final game, the Springbok try-scoring record of Danie Gerber. In 1998, he returned to playing for the Transvaal, but ran into discipline problems with, well, the former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains. He retired, after an injury, in 1999. In all, he played New Zealand 9 times, losing 7 of them. He never scored a try against the All Blacks; but then my understanding is that Lomu never scored against South Africa, either.
James Small was always talked about in terms of a ‘rough diamond’
James Small was always talked about in terms of a “rough diamond”, “flawed”, “rebel”, or (and I particularly liked this) “180 km/h in a 60 zone”. Alas, amid much talk of how he played with “passion” and “emotion” (the standard euphemisms for getting sent off), and “lived his life in the same way” (i.e. affairs or drinking problems), he blew pay cheques on Armani suits, took drugs, and was mentioned in the same breath as Eric Cantona or, more worryingly, Paul Gascoigne. After retirement from rugby, he got involved with modelling, property development, and the restaurant business. He had a rocky, intermittent relationship with a South African model called Christina Storm. In 2001 he attempted suicide. Mandela called to check on him.
But he is spoken of too as having been extremely friendly to any up-and-coming players, and great with kids and fans at off-field events. He’s also rumoured to have pinched the World Cup trophy to take round to a mate’s house party. Hard not to like a guy like that, one feels.
Still, I have had time to wonder why I’m quite so drawn to him: a man about whom I know next to nothing, beyond having watched him play one single rugby match about a dozen times. Ridiculous as it may sounds, I think it’s because of all the people on the pitch, Small looks most like I imagine I could have done if I had played professional rugby. Moreover, his story bridges the gap between a version of myself aged 18 (over-achieving and full of promise) and aged, say, 28 (not).
1995 was a while ago now – and a good handful of those young men are, alas, no longer with us. Ruben Kruger succumbed to brain cancer, at only 39. Chester Williams died of a heart attack, age 49. Joost van der Westhuizen – the scrumhalf with the intoxicating green eyes (and 89 caps) – passed away a couple of years ago, age 45, killed by the motor neurone disease that had confined him to a wheelchair for years. On the All Blacks side, Jonah Lomu, most famously and tragically, had his career cut short by kidney failure. He died in 2015.
It is a natural rite of passage to see your boyhood sporting heroes age and die. Sad to relate, then, James Small collapsed last summer, aged 50, allegedly naked and probably not alone, in a Johannesburg strip club. He died in hospital.
Whatever the minutiae of his death (and there were variables, including firearms), or the turbulent couple of decades that preceded it, the fond farewells to Small poured in, and especially from within the South African rugby community. John Smit, World Cup-winning Springbok captain in 2007, referred to Small as his hero, growing up. The All Blacks called him a “fierce competitor”. Butch James, the 2007 fly-half, said he had played against Lomu, and was glad not to have had to against Small.
The memorial was held at the Wanderers Stadium, with tributes from the ANC, current Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, and Lomu’s widow. It was attended by several hundred fans, and many former Springbok teammates.
Whilst the 1994 election was of course the preeminent shift in South Africa, domestically, it could be argued that the watershed moment for the renascent nation, in terms of international presence, was the winning of the 1995 World Cup. And while the new South Africa has had its up and downs, both in its politics and sport, it’s undeniable that the Springbok brand is now one of the strongest in the world.
In the pro era, admittedly, they have a pretty bad record against the All Blacks – but then who doesn’t? And of course, with final victories in 2007 and 2019, both sides have won the same number of World Cups; the Springboks winning almost half of those they have competed in. But the ’95 win is where it all started.
South Africa return to the international stage this autumn as World Champions once again, led by Kolisi, the first black captain of South Africa, the first black captain to lift the World Cup, and the 2019’s Most Influential Person in world rugby.
Of course, there is already concern in South Africa that an “undercooked” test side that for political reasons has (unlike their opponents) played no Super Rugby recently, and has several high-profile injuries, may be embarking on a campaign that will end in “massacre”. Nkosi sikele iAfrika.
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