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Call me a lucky man

Submitted by on Saturday, 18 April 2009No Comment
Call me a lucky man

Rugby’s ‘bad boy’ recalls unreasonable refs, marking the giant Jonah Lomu — and who really won the 1995 World Cup for SA.

Your father was a professional soccer player. Who did he play for?

I don’t know how professional it was – he played for Boksburg. But he was a Springbok. He also played for Wanderers. He played at inside left.

You also played soccer?

Yes I played at Wits. But we played rugby on the Saturday and then soccer on the Sunday so it started running into itself. I loved soccer because of my dad’s success; but it got too much.

Apparently you had a few problems with the refs?

The problem was that one of the players’ dad’s would blow the game, so it was often just a bun fight.

Jumping ahead for a moment, another ref you had a problem with was the one in Australia that sent you off. What happened there?

Robert Du Preez was playing scrum-half for us and he chirped him when he gave the penalty. Someone else also said something so the ref gave them 10 yards. If you watch the video, you can see as he marked out the 10yds he actually walked inward, which improved the angle for their goal kicker. So I sarcastically said to him, ‘Why don’t you just give them a penalty try?’ And that was it – he sent me off. Later he said it was an accumulation of things and I was just the third person who had a go at him, so I got the bullet.

Back to the early days, you were also very good at athletics. What was your best event?

I was a sprinter. I ran 100 metres in 10.4 sec. At the SA Seniors I was sixteen when I ran that time. But I was just shy of being any good. Three other guys beat me.

When you were just 18 you played fullback for Transvaal.

Yes I was playing for Wits at the time. We had a very good full back there called Mark Julian. Anyway the two of us got invited to the Transvaal trials. Mark got injured – but when I got there they called his name and they thought I was him, so they put me on. They didn’t really care because we Englishmen were there just to make up the numbers, so some bloke told me in the changing room. This of course just motivated me and I got into the team.

When you changed to wing you used to run off the ball a lot. Where did that come from?

It came from watching Campese. His work rate off the ball was amazing. Also because I had played full back I understood how to get around the park. And there’s nothing worse than playing a game and you don’t touch the ball for forty minutes. So I would go looking for it. I was also lucky to play in some amazing combinations. I played with Jooba, (Andre Joubert) and Kabous in the Natal set up, we had a great understanding; with Slap Chips (Pieter Rousseauw) and Justin Swart which was a great combination; with Pieter Hendriks and Theo van Rensburg. We would form a unit at the back so that if you got caught out of position, someone would always be covering you.

Joost van der Westhuizen played the 1995 World Cup with a rib injury – you were also carrying an injury. Tell me about that.

I had a hamstring injury right from the beginning of the tournament. At the first training session I ran into Mark Andrews and hurt my leg. I then pulled my hamstring looking after my leg. But there was a chap who was part of our set up called Ron Holder – he now works with Arsene Wenger at Arsenal – he was a balance guru; a guy who puts yellow pages in your shoes – that sort of thing. Without him I would never have made the final. I missed the game against Canada because of it. But I didn’t really enjoy the whole process of the World Cup, outside of winning it, because I couldn’t perform the way I wanted to. I mean I never scored a try during the World Cup. It was a bit of a disappointment for me. Mind you, having said that, how could playing in a final like that be a disappointment?

There was a big fight in the game against Canada?

Yes. My mother says the best thing that ever happened to me was that I wasn’t there, because she says I definitely would have got involved (laughs).

You were everybody’s hero when you marked Jonah Lomu in the final.

Yah, but I only managed to tackle him once in that whole game.

Be that as it may, what was it like watching him annihilate England in the Semi-final, knowing you would have to mark him?

It was quite scary, because you realise how much is on the line. And you are in your own back yard so there is huge interest in you. I mean when you walk into your hotel and the security guard is giggling at you in pity, you wonder.

Did you have a specific battle plan to deal with Lomu?

Hennie (Le Roux) came up with the idea of going outside him and forcing him back into the main body of the field. But to go into a final wanting to do something you hadn’t done before, was quite intimidating. And of course there was also the problem of Christian Cullen running down the line at you, which was also a bit daunting because he could step you either way with ease.

When you did actually tackle Lomu, what was it like?

He was a big target, hey? My philosophy was to stay high on him. If you go low on a big bloke like that, he has all the power in his legs and his hand-off to swat you away. His weakness is when you move his arms up and grab. But if you look at what Japie Mulder did to him; that was the moment that won the World Cup for us. Japie hit him on the cover defence and when he got up Japie pushed him. I saw a lot of the guy’s faces just change. ‘Jonah in space’, was the moment we had all feared and we went into the game wondering if we could defend against that. Japie showed we could and after that everything changed. I can’t talk highly enough about what Japie did. For me Japie won the World Cup for us – more than anybody else.

How did you get on with the All Blacks?

They were a good bunch of guys. When we toured there in 1994 we got to know them well. One night we had a drinking session with them without any management around, which was great. But rugby is such a confrontational game it was difficult to become too friendly. Also the game was still amateur then, so there was always a bit of, ‘how’s your father’ going on. But I have huge respect for people like Zinzan Brooke – he is one of my heroes.

Did you have anything to do with Sean Fitzpatrick?

A very dynamic guy. I grew up with everybody hating him so I sort of inherited that dislike. But I found myself battling to hate him. He is a gentleman a leader – funnily enough he and my mother became good buddies. They just really got on with each other.

Before the World Cup the team visited Soweto. By all accounts you were a big hit with the kids in the township?

One of the things I was acutely aware of was how privileged and fortunate I was. So I felt I had a role to play for those kids. If they wanted heroes and we were going to be them, then we should be right people. My daughter will one day have heroes and I would like them to be proper.

You also went to Soccer City under the ‘One Team One Country’ campaign. What was that like?

We shat ourselves. We were like kids walking in single file holding hands, but it was brilliant. That campaign was put together by Edward Griffiths – he was very clever in what he did. We sat amongst the crowd – no fancy boxes or anything. After that I went to all the games. Eventually I used to help this guy who had one leg – he used to get the crowd going. This chap saw me and insisted I sit with him and help him with his war-cries and stuff. From being petrified in the beginning, in the end we were partying in the car park until half past twelve at night. We would buy a half jack and a 2 litre coke and party for badges.

Back to rugby – you played under a few coaches in your time.

Too many. Harry (Viljoen) was good, but things changed. In the end Harry was there for Harry. Ian McIntosh was amazing. We gave each other a hard time, but he was just special. Harry did bring a business-like attitude to things. But it backfired on him when it came to youngsters like Bobby Skinstad and Corne Krige. They needed a firm hand because they thought they were Gods. It had to go wrong and it did. Kitch was something else. I’d been fishing with him, but when he first became coach he kicked me out of the side for drinking on a Friday night. So the first call I got from the new Springbok coach was to boot me out of the side. But he was also incredible; an amazing man.

In your first ten games for the Springboks, they only won two games. How did you feel about that?

I think I was lucky to make the side. Tony Watson was probably first choice at that stage. But then Natal played the All Blacks the week before the test match and Tuigamala, the original unstoppable wing, turned Tony inside out and ran all over him. So they put me in for the Test match. But then when I dropped the ball with a yard to go – I thought I would never see the green jersey again. I thought I would be a, ‘one test wonder’. Fortunately it didn’t happen.

To digress, a few years ago you had a publicised custody battle over your child, how did that all work out?

You know I come from a broken home, so it was really something I didn’t enjoy or want to happen. But now everything is great. I see her all the time and we have a fantastic bond. She is four and a half and wonderful
You have always had the ‘Bad boy’ tag.

How would you label James Small?

A mate of mine is writing a book about our upbringing in Johannesburg. And he is calling it ‘A lucky Man.’ I think that’s how I would describe myself – a lucky man.

Lastly, have you committed suicide lately?

(Laughs)…

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