South Africa mourns the death of its Rugby World Cup hero Joost van der Westhuizen who fought motor neuron disease, with the same aggression he showed on the rugby field. Van der Westhuizen was diagnosed in 2011 and succumbed on February 6. Many remember Van der Westhuizen from his heroic show when he threw his body at All Blacks bully winger Jonah Lomu, denying them a 1995 World Cup victory at Ellis Park stadium, in Johannesburg.
On that day June 24, 1995, millions of South Africans, many watching rugby for the first time, watched the final against the 1987 World Cup winners. Both teams were undefeated. The match was a bookie’s headache.
The All Blacks menacing winger Lomu, a 120-kilogram giant, was the man to mark. The 20-year-old carried his team throughout the tournament. He crashed his way to becoming the tournament’s top try scorer. But the Springbok scrumhalf Van der Westhuizen, who stood at 1.88 meters and weighed 88 kilograms, was having none of it. Undoubtedly, he was the best scrumhalf that ever played in my lifetime. On defence, a scrumhalf is the weakest link, but Van der Westhuizen reinvented the position. He was what the coaches call an extra flank. The opposition avoided breaking in his channel because he scared you with his green eyes before destroying you, ball and all, with his massive shoulders.
Needless to say, Van der Westhuizen stole the spotlight as he cut down the aggressive attacks from Lomu. At full-time the game ended at 9-9, no tries. Seven minutes before the end of extra time, Van der Westhuizen picked up the ball behind a moving scrum and unleashed a bullet pass to the hands of Joel Stransky who booted it to victory.
In November 1993, a young Van der Westhuizen made his debut for the Springboks against Argentina, and within two years he was a fixture in the team. He captained the Boks 10 times and scored 38 tries in 89 test matches.
It is rare for a South African player to represent only one province, Van der Westhuizen played for one team only – the Blue Bulls of Pretoria.
In 2009, almost six years after retiring from the sport, all the good work that Van der Westhuizen did came close to destruction when a video with a blonde woman in a compromising position was leaked to the media. In the video he wore only underwear while sniffing white powder, believed to be cocaine. After denying it for some time, Van der Westhuizen manned up and admitted he was the man in the video. But that could not salvage his marriage to his popstar wife, Amor Vittone, who wanted a divorce.
Shortly after the devastating separation, the big-hearted Van der Westhuizen lost weight and was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 2011. From then on he became a different champion, this time off the field. Van der Westhuizen dedicated his time to raising awareness about the disease. The J9 Foundation was formed – the name was in honor of his scrumhalf position.
Van der Westhuizen epitomized fighting spirit on and off the field.
“It’s a reminder that I achieved a lot in my lifetime. It’s a reminder of success. It’s actually a reminder of what it took for us a team to win the World Cup, if I can take that characteristic into my personal life in trying to fight this disease. That’s what I am doing at this stage,” said Van der Westhuizen before his death.
His former Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, spoke at his memorial service in Pretoria.
“Joost loved winning, he was a competitor… In the times of amateur rugby, Joost had professional mind-set and discipline… Captaining Joost was incredibly easy and incredibly difficult. He always pushed the boundaries. An individual spirit that would do anything for his teammates. On the field he played like a rock star. Off the field he partied like a rock star. He was after all a rock star. He was funny and bloody naughty,” says Pienaar.
Apparently he was truly the naughty guy among his teammates. One of the tales says Van der Westhuizen sneaked under the table and tied teammates’ shoelaces together.
He was 45 years old and is survived by his two children, Jordan and Kylie, and his mother Mariana and father Gustav, and two brothers.