Rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen coming to terms with death sentence
It takes just a couple of glances of those famous piercing eyes. One look at the bottle of water on the table, another at his assistant across the room. She hurries over, lifts the bottle and places the straw between his lips. He takes a drink and smiles his thanks.
Joost van der Westhuizen is sitting in his wheelchair in an Edinburgh bar. His hands, folded in his lap, are all but useless now. The body that was once the most feared weapon in world rugby has been hollowed out by the pitiless progress of motor neurone disease since he was diagnosed with the illness 30 months ago. He knows he is losing this battle, but he still has his winner’s smile.
And here it is again. He is remembering the day in November 1994 when the Murrayfield groundsman chased him off the pitch. It was the eve of the Scotland-South Africa game and he wanted to practise a few kicks, but the groundsman was having none of it.
“Get off the field, sonny,” the Scotsman barked at the young scrum-half. “Get off right now!”
Van der Westhuizen was livid. “I remember it well,” he says, his speech a heavy and almost incomprehensible slur. “I remember thinking: 'Right, tomorrow I will show you.’ I scored two tries in that game and as I walked off I saw him standing on the touchline. I smiled at him. He just shook his head. It was a good moment.”
That match, which South Africa won 34-10, has entered the Springboks’ annals as the beginning of a journey that would end at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, six months later, with a tumultuous World Cup victory. It was also the match that established Van der Westhuizen as the finest scrum-half in the world. In time, with his combination of pace and power and his mastery of the technical demands of his role, he would be hailed as the best rugby player on earth.
He knew it, too. The rugby gods who had showered Van der Westhuizen with blessings never bothered to add humility to the mix. His haughtiness meant he was always more admired than liked, but the illness that has brought him to his knees over the past three years has also brought forth friends he never knew he had, and an understanding of a few deeper things in life.
“I want to be a better person,” he says. “There were times in my career when people said I was arrogant, I only cared about myself. Now I know that they were right. It is really about giving and caring for others.”
His children are his most pressing consideration. “You can imagine that if someone gives you a death sentence when you have a family and you have young kids of five and seven then you are going to feel pretty bad. It took me about a year and a half to come to terms with it.
“But then I just woke up one morning and I decided I would lead the rest of my life positively. I realise that I am still alive and that I don’t want to be remembered by my family as being a negative person who moaned about life. I want to be happy and I want them to be happy, and that will make it easier on them.”
Heyneke Meyer, the South Africa coach, described Van der Westhuizen as a fighter the other day. His body may be weakening, but his resolve goes stronger every day as he devotes himself to raising awareness of motor neurone disease and funds for its sufferers.
“I have to fight, not just for me but for all the other sufferers,” he says. “In South Africa there has been no research; the disease is hidden. People have had no information, so I decided that I would do what I could to help them. That keeps me going and it makes me happy to see some benefits.”
The Springboks’ visit to Europe has given him a lever to do even more. In Wales last weekend he hosted a star-studded gathering in aid of his J9 Foundation. In Scotland, he has been working on behalf of Edinburgh University’s Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neurone Disease Research. His days are savagely numbered, but he is filling them with everything he can.
“I surround myself with good people, positive people,” he says. “My two kids, now seven and nine, keep me up and give me pleasure. I have decided that I am going to give them a dad as long as possible. For me tiso be able to do that I have to be very strong.
“When I told my boy I was coming here to see a doctor, he said: 'Daddy, when you come back will you be better? I want you to play with me.’ When they were younger I used to play with them on the lawn all the time, so it is very difficult. My daughter really wants me to pick her up and hug her, and that is hard.”
For others, too. “You almost think things don’t happen to people like that,” Meyer said. “It was a huge shock for me. We are very close. It just shows that you have to live life to the full. You have to make use of every single second out there and enjoy life because there are a lot of other guys who can’t.”
Van der Westhuizen will be at Murrayfield for Scotland’s meeting with South Africa on Sunday. The memories of a match that was, arguably, the greatest demonstration of his genius will come flooding back. Those eyes will light up again. And he will smile.