James Small was a well-recognized figure in rugby circles and one of South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup-winning squad, so when his sudden death from what is believed to have been heart failure at 50 sent shockwaves through rugby communities worldwide. As tributes poured in, Small’s impact on the sport and his vibrant life outside the field came into focus.
A Storied Rugby Career
Small’s rugby career extended from 1992-1997 and saw him earn 47 Springbok caps during that time, beginning with his debut against New Zealand at Johannesburg International Sports stadium on November 3, 1992. Since that unforgettable debut game – which marked only the beginning of an amazing adventure! – many great things happened for Small. Known for his tenacity and skill, Small scored 20 Test tries, surpassing the record held by Danie Gerber at the time. His contributions were pivotal in some of the most significant matches against teams like New Zealand, Australia, and England. Apart from international glory, Small also shined in provincial rugby, playing for Transvaal, Natal, and Western Province. His presence in Currie Cup finals and victories with Natal and WP underscored his versatility and commitment to the sport.
The Heart Attack and Its Aftermath
Small’s passing was sudden and unexpected. He was rushed to a hospital in Johannesburg following a heart attack. Despite medical efforts, he couldn’t be revived. This event raised questions about athletes’ health post-retirement, particularly concerning heart health. Heart attacks among former athletes are not uncommon, often attributed to the intense physical strain during their careers. Small’s death prompted a renewed focus on regular health check-ups and awareness about heart diseases, especially for retired sports professionals.
Legacy and Remembrance
James Small’s legacy extends beyond his achievements on the rugby field. Described as passionate and courageous, he embodied the spirit of Springbok rugby. SA Rugby president Mark Alexander’s statement emphasized Small’s enduring place in South African hearts. His style of play, marked by aggression and flair, left an indelible mark on the sport. Moreover, his transition to coaching after retirement showcased his commitment to nurturing future generations. Small’s death was a significant loss not only to his family and friends but also to the global rugby fraternity.
Impact on South African Rugby
Small’s death highlighted the mortality of the heroes of the 1995 Rugby World Cup team. He was the third player from that squad to have passed away, following Ruben Kruger and Joost van der Westhuizen. Their deaths, along with that of coach Kitch Christie, remind us of the fleeting nature of life and the vulnerabilities even the strongest face. Small’s passing served as a moment of reflection for South African rugby, emphasizing the importance of cherishing and honoring the contributions of past heroes.
James Small’s sudden passing at 50 stands as an irrefutable testament to life and health’s fragility, leaving an unforgettable legacy both on and off the field. His contributions in rugby were enormous while his dynamic presence made an indelible mark upon those around him. As we remember Small, we reflect on the importance of health awareness, the need to celebrate our sports heroes, and the enduring legacy they leave behind. His journey from a rugby icon to a mentor and coach illustrates a life lived with passion, dedication, and an unyielding love for the sport.