When we were kings

In a month or so where dropped passes will be called disasters, missed kicks labelled catastrophes and defeats likened to tragedies, the stories of Joost Van der Westhuizen and former Springbok team-mates puts things in perspective, explains Ciaran Cronin.

IT STARTED with a shake in his left hand. It was nothing major, a small tremble, the inevitable result of a career putting the body on the line as a professional rugby player. Or so Joost van der Westhuizen thought. He first noticed the problem last December but it wasn’t until May that the former South African scrum-half thought anything of it. On holiday with his two kids, seven-year-old Jordan and five-year-old Kylie, at the Sun City resort near Johannesburg, he lost an arm wrestle to an old doctor friend of his, the kind of friend he would never have lost an arm wrestle to before. The next day, in the pool, Van der Westhuizen told the doctor about the peculiar way his left-hand had been feeling, and indeed acting, of late. He was sent for tests and within days of being examined, the former Springbok scrum-half was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND).

“It’s easy for people to say just be positive and forget about it,” Van der Westhuizen said at the time. “But when you shave every morning and you cut yourself and when you lie in bed and see your arm but can’t move it, it’s on your mind all the time.”

In late July, it was confirmed the 40-year-old, who played in 89 Springbok tests, winning the 1995 World Cup in the process, had two to five years to live. At that, only one-in-five diagnosed make it to the end of that time-span.

Throughout a good portion of those 89 caps, Andre Venter would have been by Van der Westhuizen’s side. First capped the year after South Africa’s World Cup success, Venter was a ferocious flanker and a beast of a man. By reputation, he was the fittest and strongest man in South African rugby but he is not that man anymore. Today, if Van der Westhuizen is looking for advice about how to cope with MND, Venter will be there, sitting in his wheelchair, ready to give it.

The 41-year-old is suffering from Transverse Myehtis, an inflammation of the spinal cord which is considered part of the MND family. His form of the disease is not as severe as Van der Westhuizen’s — it affects him from the waist down — but it’s debilitating all the same. Back in 2006, he went to the doctor with what felt like the flu and within days, he’d lost feeling in both his legs. He was unable, for a period, to walk or stand or even sit up in his bed. Sheer blood-mindedness saw Venter back crawling again; now, he can sit up-right in his wheelchair. And while, for Venter, it might be a curse to be alive some days, it’s better than not being alive.

Ruben Kruger, like Van der Westhuizen, played his part in the 1995 World Cup success, and packed down with Venter in the same Springbok pack on more than one occasion. At 6ft 2in and 16 stone, he wasn’t the most gargantuan second row South African rugby has ever produced but his appetite for destruction around the pitch was such that Springbok coach Kitch Christie nicknamed him “Silent Assassin”. In 2000, just a year after his retirement from the international game, Kruger was diagnosed with a brain tumour after suffering a blackout during a match. It was operated on many occasions over the next decade, but it kept coming back. He died in January 2010, aged just 39.

Let’s not forget, in the midst of all these tales of woe, the story of young Wium Basson. On the list of players who have represented South Africa, Van der Westhuizen is Springbok number 593, Kruger 596, Venter 634 and Basson 661. As a 21-year-old in November 1997, he was selected to travel on his country’s winter tour to the northern hemisphere, where he played in a number of midweek games; by the age of 25, the second row was dead, a victim of liver cancer, diagnosed far too late.

CAN it really be only coincidence that four professional rugby players, all playing in and around the same era of South African rugby, have all suffered degenerative diseases? At present, nobody seems quite sure. Motor Neurone Disease — also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Scleroses, or Lou Gehrig’s disease in the US — is the group name for a host of neurological diseases that affect motor neurones. Motor neurones are specialised nerve cells that send signals from the brain to the muscles and bones, enabling you to move them. They also help regulate many of the body’s automatic processes, such as breathing and swallowing. And if they break down, the effects are predictably serious. Ten per cent of those with MND suffer because of genetics: Munster fitness coach Paul Darbyshire, who sadly passed away in June, was in that category. The other 90% are known as ‘sporadic’ sufferers, who contract the disease for reasons largely unknown. However, among the ‘sporadic’ group, evidence is beginning to emerge that certain environmental factors are capable of triggering the disease.

In a rugby sense, the first of those has been whispered rather than shouted, and concerns the possibility that supplements given to players over the course of their careers may have caused them to develop MND. The main evidence comes from a study by Italian neurologist Adriano Chio, published in November 2008. He discovered 41 professional footballers in the country contracted the disease from the 1970s onwards, an incidence that meant you were seven times more likely to suffer from MND as a professional footballer in Italy than if you earned a living another way.

Chio’s report was unable to pinpoint exactly why this was the case. One theory points the finger squarely at the strange concoction of drugs, such as cortex and micoren, that were apparently routinely administered to Italian footballers in the 1970s in order to boost performance. There have been suggestions that similar practices have taken place in South African rugby but until real proof emerges, it remains little more than a conspiracy theory.

The other environmental factor, one that has more serious weight behind it, is the theory that those who suffer regular concussions — as Van der Westhuizen and Venter, and Kruger and Basson, did during their rugby careers — are at a greater risk of developing MND. A study by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine examined the spinal cord and brain tissue of 12 deceased NFL players who suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have suffered multiple concussions.

“It is too early to be sure,” Dr Ann McKee, who led the study, told the New York Times. “But it suggests a history of repetitive head or neck trauma may trigger this.”

There is a belief in medical circles that the numbers involved in McKee’s study are too small to draw proper inferences from, but it might be wise for the IRB’s newly appointed medical chief, Dr Martin Raftery, to examine the issue. In June, the IRB announced a new protocol to deal with concussions which lays down specific guidelines — all depending on the level of medical care a player is able to receive — on when a concussed player can return to action. It’s a step in the right direction, certainly, but if a definitive link between concussion and MND is ever proved, far more will need to be done.

WHEREVER the truth does lie, there’s no denying the sadness of it all. The liver cancer that struck Basson may not have been MND, or indeed brain related, but there should be no rush to declare his death as unconnected to his years as a player, particularly if the whispers concerning performance-boosting supplements hold any truth. Basson died at his family home in Paarl, Western Cape in April 2001. He had retired from professional rugby a year earlier with a neck injury. Van der Westhuizen was among many Springboks and Blue Bulls players to attend the funeral.

Kruger battled his brain tumour for nine years but then, on holiday with his family in the summer of 2009, he feel ill and was airlifted to hospital. The surgeon removed 90% of a tumour “the size of a man’s fist” but was unable to touch the rest. Andre Venter attended his funeral six months later, the sight of the once great flanker being pushed in a wheelchair was as tough as anything else on the day, according to those present. At the church, he delivered an emotional tribute to his teammate. “Ruben was a remarkable person. My wife and I visited him in December. He prayed for me in spite of all his pain. Ruben, when I get to heaven one day, I want to be in the same team as you again.”

Mercifully from Venter’s point of view, his re-acquaintance with Kruger might be some years off. The 41-year-old’s condition has stabilised to the extent he is now back behind the desk at the computer systems company he co-owns in Bloemfontein, and is able to work out every day to keep his body in shape and maintain muscle mass. His greatest hope is that with the rapid pace of development in modern medicine, what might not be possible today, might be in five years time. “I must get myself into a position to get well, and I’m hoping for a medical breakthrough or a miracle,” he said.

Unfortunately, Van der Westhuizen is unlikely to be afforded that chance, despite undergoing experimental stem-cell treatment in the past fortnight. According to current Springbok captain John Smit, Van der Westhuizen is fading fast, despite the two to five years promised to him. “I spoke to him some weeks ago and you can see the deterioration already,” said Smit recently. “It’s traumatic for an individual like that, a young father. It’s sad to think about what he was and what he’s going to be.”

Despite his predicament, the former scrum-half is now attempting to put a better spin on things. “I’m in actually a lucky position where I can fix my life with my belief, between me and God, rectify what I did wrong,” Van der Westhuizen commented recently. “Other people are not that lucky. If you get run over by a truck, you don’t have that time.”


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