Obituary: Joost van der Westhuizen, rugby player and motor neurone disease campaigner

Joost Van De Westhuizen has died at the age of 45
Joost Van De Westhuizen has died at the age of 45
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Joost Heystek van der Westhuizen. Born: 20 February, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa. Died: 6 February, 2017, in Pretoria, aged 45.

He played five times against Scotland and never lost, scoring four tries and generally bossing the game as only Joost van der Westhuizen could with those piercing blue eyes and rugged physique that intimidated so many players.

Scottish rugby should have detested the very sight of him, yet when he arrived in ­Edinburgh in November 2013, Van der Westhuizen was greeted with standing ovations wherever he went, including Murrayfield Stadium before South Africa ­hammered Scotland 28-0. For the ­greatest scrum-half of the modern era was known to be ­battling motor neurone ­disease (MND), and the Scottish ­rugby community reached out to embrace a ­legend of the game as he courageously ­confronted his condition from his wheelchair.

That same community and indeed the wide world of sport is today mourning the loss of van der Westhuizen at the age of 45. He could win a World Cup, defy the might of the late Jonah Lomu, outrun and ­out-think so many opponents, but could not beat the dreadful disease which took his life.

Born in Pretoria, van der Westhuizen was raised on a farm with Afrikaans as his first language. He attended Derdepoort Primary School where he was introduced to rugby as a five-year-old.

His all-round sporting skills were noticed from the ­outset and at the age of nine he was selected for the Northern Transvaal athletics team.

Having been head boy at his primary, he then attended F. H. Odendaal High School which overcame many much more illustrious rugby-playing schools to be crowned South African school ­champions, with van der Westhuizen also playing cricket for his school and again being selected for the Northern Transvaal ­athletics team, which he would later captain.

He was also chosen for the South African athletics squad while studying for a degree in physical education at the ­University of Pretoria.

Rugby remained his first love, however, and he quickly made his way through the age grades to earn his first cap for South Africa against Argentina in 1993, by which time he was already a stalwart of the Northern Transvaal rugby side, later to become the Blue Bulls. He would play all his club rugby for them and ­later captained the Bulls in 2002 when they won the Currie Cup, the South African championship.

The timing was fortunate for Van der Westhuizen. The release of Nelson Mandela and his subsequent election as President allowed South Africa back into international rugby and the rainbow nation was chosen to host the 1995 World Cup.

Standing more than 6ft 1in tall, Van der Westhuizen was unusually big for a scrum half, with only Stan Coughtrie of Scotland and the British and Irish Lions and the Welsh pair of Terry Holmes and Mike Phillips being as big or bigger in post-war international rugby.

His athleticism and skill combined to make Van der Westhuizen a formidable force on the field, and he would become recognised as one of the finest-ever players in his position.

Rugby was also still amateur in 1994, but Van der Westhuizen was able to get the time to join South Africa’s tour of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Johan Roux, recognised as the Springboks’ first choice No. 9, was injured, and van der Westhuizen came into the team, staying there for ten years.

He was famously told off by a groundsman for practising on the hallowed Murrayfield turf during South ­Africa’s time in Scotland. Irked by the rebuke, van der Westhuizen was inspired to score two tries as the Springboks defeated ­Scotland 34-10.

The World Cup in 1995 saw his finest hour as South ­Africa won the Webb Ellis Trophy, beating New Zealand in the final. His three tackles on the giant winger Jonah Lomu helped turn the game, ­especially one when Lomu seemed certain to score.

His services for club and country were secured when rugby union became ­professional. Van der Westhuizen captained South Africa to third place in the 1999 World Cup in France, and played his last game for his country in the 2003 World Cup, being beaten by New Zealand in the quarter-finals. At the time he retired from international rugby, van der Westhuizen had played a record 89 times for South ­Africa, scoring 38 tries, another record.

He then became a rugby coach at Pretoria University, a television broadcaster, and married the South African singer and media personality Amor Vittone. They were a glittering couple, always in the nation’s media, until they split when van der Westhuizen was involved in a sex tape scandal with another woman.

His was a life of two halves, as the player himself said: “It was a sunny afternoon in Johannesburg in March 2011. I was in the pool with a doctor friend of mine, playing games with my son.

“Dr Henry Kelbrick noticed that my right arm was lagging slightly and he asked me if I had experienced weakness in my arm. He also noticed that my speech was slurred and he decided to send me to a ­neurologist for tests.

“On return of my test results, I was sitting in Dr. Kelbrick’s office when he broke the ­horrific news of my diagnosis to me. I think it must have been one of the most difficult things for him to do.

“Being the optimist I am and not knowing what motor ­neurone disease was, I asked him to prescribe me medicine so that my life could ­continue. He replied: ‘I’m sorry my friend, this is a fatal disease and there is no cure.’

“And so the second half of my life started…”

The diagnosis was ­confirmed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the most common form of MND. Van der Westhuizen started a one-man campaign to focus public attention on the disease.

What a campaigner he turned out to be, his J9 Foundation ­becoming the focus of his globetrotting efforts to boost research and support for MND sufferers and their families. During that 2013 ­visit to Scotland he joined up with the Euan MacDonald Centre at Edinburgh University to collaborate on research into MND.

Jonah Lomu, with whom he is forever linked because of those tackles in the final, died of long-term kidney ­disease in November 2015, just after the World Cup in England. In the run-up to the tournament the two great friends, joined in battles against ­illness, had an emotional reunion which ­ended with the All Black embracing the wheelchair-bound Springbok.

Now both are dead, but memories of them will never disappear as long as the game of rugby union is played.

Joost van der Westhuizen was formally separated from his wife, but she cared for him in his final illness.

He is survived by their two children, son Jordan and daughter Kylie, his father Gustav‚ mother Mariana‚ and brothers Pieter and Gustav and their families.

A public memorial service will be held in Lotus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria today and there will be commemorations of him at each of the three RBS Six Nations matches being held this weekend.