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

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

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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 w

…. to be continued
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