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James Small pushed Maccabi SA team to victory

  • LukeSport19July
For three or four heady weeks in 2017, James Small became an honorary Jew. Maccabi rugby had under-achieved in the three Maccabiah prior to that, and Small was recruited as part of the 2017 team’s coaching staff.
by LUKE ALFRED | Jul 18, 2019

His knowledge and emotional energy would be good for the guys, it was believed, and those who brought him on board weren’t wrong.

Small of name but big of heart, the former Bok right wing’s recruitment was a masterstroke. The Maccabi Sevens team won gold, while the 15s grabbed silver, losing to the United States in the final.

Small was savvy and inspirational, and even if he’d said little – which wasn’t the case – his mere presence would have galvanised a previously under-performing team. “By the end, he was going off to Tel Aviv to have a chai (life) and hamsa (hand) tattooed on his bicep,” says Kevin Musikanth, the team’s coach. “James could never say no. He was a proper, proper mensch.”

Like many boys growing up in the early 1990s, Musikanth idolised Small. “I was this Cape Town teenager trying to pretend that I had a future in rugby, and here comes this Cristiano Ronaldo-type talent playing for the Lions up in Joburg,” says Musikanth.

“I remember going to a Springbok kit hand out at Newlands and, later, I was picked to go to Argentina as part of a select side in 1994, and we practised on Newlands B when the Boks were training there. We ended up kicking the ball to them, and getting autographs.

“That generation was special. They had real rugby in them still, from the old amateur days. [Small] was sincere about engaging with people – he came from an age where rugby was still a brotherhood.”

Many years later, Musikanth – by now coach of the University of Cape Town in the Varsity Cup – started rubbing shoulders with Small again, this time on the side of the paddock.

Small and Robert du Preez were part of the Pukke coaching staff by that stage, and UCT and the University of Potchefstroom had some epic arm-wrestles through the years.

Although they stood on different sides of the pitch, Musikanth was always impressed by Small’s generosity of spirit. He was inevitably complimentary, even when his side lost, and always open to having a conversation. “I remember the edge that James and his teams played with. I aspired to that as a coach,” said Musikanth. “His teams played with a different energy, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to tap into that.’”

Musikanth’s relationship with Small was cemented when Musikanth was appointed St John’s College’s director of rugby. Shortly after he started his new job, Musikanth noticed a young under-16 full back, and was impressed with Kieran Houlston’s abilities as a player without realising that Small was Houlston’s uncle.

Houlston was duly promoted to the St John’s first XV with Small often coming to watch his nephew’s matches. “We asked James to hand out the first XV jerseys,” says Musikanth. “You know, James almost had too much to give, he almost had too many ideas. He realised what he meant to people, and he gave them more than they ever expected.”

Small’s presence in the St John’s rugby environment was too good to be true, and Musikanth duly recruited him into the Maccabi coaching fold.

Brad Berger, who was the manager of the South African Maccabi rugby side in 2017, says that without Small the Sevens team wouldn’t have won gold. “If it weren’t for him, there’s no way that we would have got those two medals,” he says. “Remember that our form in two or three Maccabi events before that wasn’t so good. He really offered us something new and fresh. The guys were just so keen to play for him.

“James should have written a book. He had so many stories. He lived a proper rugby life, and the guys respected that.

“In the Sevens final against Israel, he was really inspirational, he really provided that X-factor,” says Berger. “We were two tries down, and easily could have gone three tries down, but James brought out the best in everyone, and was able to motivate the guys, so we came back, and ended up winning 19-12.”

Musikanth says that Maccabi rugby is unusually gruelling in that there aren’t separate squads for Sevens and 15s – the same group plays in both formats. Israel, South Africa’s opponents in the Sevens final, were pre-tournament favourites and, with three schoolboys in their midst, winning gold was always going to be a tough ask for the South Africans.

“James asked me before the match started if he could take the warm-up,” remembers Musikanth. “He had a contact shield in his hand, and was literally playing against our entire team as he was pushing our boys to be better than they thought they could be.

“In the end, the game was exceptionally tight. We had to defend a slender lead with six men. James’ tenacity and presence in that tournament was why we won those two medals.”

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