OBITUARY: World Cup-winning South Africa scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen

Few rugby players can simply be identified by their first names. Gareth, Sonny Bill, Zinzan, Jonny, and Jonah are some of the few whose deeds and skills have given them that particular status. And Joost.

Joost Van Der Westhuizen passes out of the Springbok scrum during the '95 Rugby World Cup match against Australia. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Joost van der Westhuizen, the brilliant Springbok and Bulls scrum-half , whose fame on the rugby was matched off it by his grit to fight the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of Motor Neuron Disease (MND), died on February 6.

He was 45 and is survived by two children — son Jordan (13) and daughter Kylie (10) — as well as his father Gustav, mother Mariana, and brothers Pieter and Gustav.

He did not shy away from his condition when it was diagnosed in 2011, eight years after he retired as the Springboks’ all-time leading Test try scorer with 38.

Instead he embraced the challenge of trying to find a cure for the disease while also raising awareness for other sufferers of MND through his J9 Foundation, which he established soon after the diagnosis. Joost tackled MND head on, just as he cut Jonah Lomu down in the 1995 World Cup final.

It seemed like a hopeless endeavour until Joost tackled the problem.

Both Joost and Jonah are now gone, but joined as much for their rugby exploits as for their courage and humility in the face of illness. Their medical battles in the prime of their lives bound them together more so than that sunny June afternoon 21 winters ago.

Joost made you believe there was a cure for MND just as he made his teammates believe there was always a way to win a match.

He refused to give up. He was a fighter until the end.

“He never lost that fighting spirit,” former Bok and Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer said.

“One incident epitomises that spirit. We were at a gala dinner a couple of years after he was diagnosed with MND. Joost couldn’t talk properly at that stage. He said something to me and I didn’t understand, so I leaned in closer and asked him to repeat what he said. In Afrikaans he replied: ‘Hulle het my een jaar gegee on te lewe…Fok Hulle! (they gave me one year to live…fuck them.’)

“To me that summed him up perfectly. He was unable to speak properly and was physically frail but he never gave up fighting and lived for over six years fighting MND.”

Joost was famously part of the 1995 World Cup winning team — the greatest year in Bok rugby — and he was a central figure in the success.

His performances at the World Cup were busy and laced with that searing will to win and compete. Nowhere were those traits better epitomised than in the final against the All Blacks.

Lomu, a wing at 1.95m and 118kg, had changed the rugby world and he seemed unstoppable. Inside the first 10 minutes of the final Jonah broke the Bok defensive line, but Joost stopped him in full flight with a head-on tackle. Ellis Park erupted and Bok chests swelled. Lomu even looked stunned. It was the moment that turned the final the way of the Boks.

Four years later Joost captained the Boks to third place at RWC 1999, playing with injured knee ligaments throughout. He had surgery after the tournament and missed the entire 2000 season.

Joost van der Westhuizen meets Irish team members Jared Payne, Tommy O’Donnell, Simon Zebo, Rob Kearney, Sean Cronin, and Devin Toner in Dublin in 2014. Picture: Inpho/Dan Sheridan

He was also part of the Bok squad that won 17 Tests in a row between 1997-98, starting 14 of them. The Boks won the 1998 Tri-Nations as well. He also won two Currie Cups with the Blue Bulls, captaining them both times in 1998 and 2002 while he was nominated as SA Rugby Player of the Year six times, but never won.

After his retirement, scandal erupted in 2009 when he was caught on film with a woman, appearing to snort cocaine. Vehement denials later gave way to an admission it was he on the tape.

He and his second wife, Afrikaans singer Amor Vittone, separated after the incident but remained close, especially after he was diagnosed with MND. They never officially divorced and were both heavily involved in raising their children in difficult circumstances.

Joost Heystek van der Westhuizen was born and raised in a blue-collar suburb of east Pretoria and through a combination of talent, hard work and tenacity, rose to become the greatest scrum-half of a generation. He changed scrum-half play with athleticism, size, and power more commonly associated with flanks and centres.

Joost did not mould his game to become a better scrum-half; he moulded the position to fit his talents and in so doing, rewrote the coaching manual on scrumhalf play.

“He was the benchmark, and whenever I was compared to Joost by someone, I took that as a huge compliment because he was the best of his era,” Fourie du Preez, Joost’s scrum-half successor at the Bulls and Boks, said. “But I never tried to play like him because he was unique.”

Van der Westhuizen made his name as a high school scrum-half in east Pretoria with the unfashionable FH Odendaal team that went all the way to the Administrator’s Cup (contested by over 120 schools in then Transvaal) final in 1987. The school lost the final 18-14 to Hugenote from Springs, which contained Joost’s future 1995 World Cup-winning teammates Japie Mulder and Chris Rossouw.

In 1988 he was selected for the Northern Transvaal Craven Week (U18) team and after three years at Pretoria University where he made his mark, his rise to Test star began.

He was invited to Northern Transvaal trials in early 1992 and attended, secretly hiding a broken small finger on his left hand, which he injured in a ‘koshuis’ (hostel) game. The trial wasn’t a success, with Van der Westhuizen losing out to future Bok teammate Johan Roux for a place in the initial squad.

Two months later he starred as Pretoria University beat traditional rivals, University of Stellenbosch in front of 40,000 people at Loftus Versfeld. His performance earned praise from no lesser luminary than Springbok legend Danie Craven, and the following week Van der Westhuizen was included on the Northern Transvaal bench for a friendly against Transvaal. He came on as a wing late in the match, with Northern Transvaal winning 22-14.

His progress was rapid that season, eventually ousting Roux as first-choice scrum-half at Loftus. Roux would move 50km south to Johannesburg the following season to play for Transvaal.

Later that season Van der Westhuizen was chosen as the Junior Springboks’ starting scrum-half against the touring All Blacks. The following year he sat patiently on the bench against both France and Australia before his Test chance came.

His dazzling, unorthodox attacking halfback play and rock solid defence marked him out as someone special. He made his Bok debut against Western Australia at the WACA in July, scoring four tries in the process.and by October of 1993 he was selected for the Boks to play against Argentina. It was the first of 89 Tests for the Boks and naturally he scored a try on debut and added another a week later in the second Test.

It was the start of a brilliant career in the Bok jersey, playing 111 matches for South Africa and scoring 56 tries.



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