Comment - What made Joost van der Westhuizen so special and why his spirit could not be crushed
Joost van der Westhuizen was a man of South Africa. There was never to be any mistaking that. The defiance. The physical rigour. The deep-set eyes. The look. He was not going to be easily subdued. Not on the pitch, where his raw-edged, sniping play transformed defence around the fringes, teams thenceforth bringing in rugby league pillars close to the breakdown to stop the Van der Westhuizens of this world. As if that were possible.
That was true off the field as well, and most certainly during his illness-ravaged years. The dreaded motor neurone disease might have managed to strip away his muscles but they could not take away his fight, his humanity and his mischief. In 2011 he was given 2½ years to live. He managed six. Again, as if we should have been surprised by that.
It tells us something of the way we live out our lives that two giants of the game, Joost and Jonah (Lomu), should have come to feature more tellingly, more movingly in our consciousness, make even more of an impression as to their inner strength, their relish for the battle, their desire to embrace the moment, at the very time when their own veneer of invincibility had been peeled back to reveal mere mortals.
That they should both die within 15 months of each other, two such totemic figures from the 1995 Rugby World Cup, can only reinforce the need to seize that day when it is before us. For it does not last forever.
The young Lomu made his mark in vivid fashion in that ’95 tournament but for many of us it was Van der Westhuizen who epitomised the very core of the Springbok side who were to cause such an upset in beating the seemingly all-powerful All Blacks in the final.
South Africa had only been out of sporting isolation for three years. The first free elections in which Nelson Mandela was installed as president had taken place only 14 months earlier. One team, one country. The rainbow nation. Such were the modernist slogans that surrounded the Springboks.
Black wing Chester Williams was the poster boy of the new-look side. Yet, as has been the case almost ever since, South Africa were a side of many shades, many nuances. And Van der Westhuizen was very much a man of the Northern Transvaal tribe, steeped in rugby and all that it represented on the field of play as a test of a man’s physicality, his will, his courage, his durability. Van der Westhuizen passed those tests with flying colours.
His full-frontal tackle on the rampaging Lomu in the World Cup final not only stopped the huge wing in his tracks, something that had been beyond the ken and ability of several Englishmen in the semi-final, it lifted an entire nation never mind just his team-mates.
Lomu had run rampant throughout the tournament, a hitman in black. The young All Black had been deliberately held back from interviews so as to enhance his mystique. Joost put paid to all that. Jonah was just a wing after all.
Van der Westhuizen came from a different stock of scrum-halves. Wales’s Terry Holmes (1978-85) is the only other in memory who could stand comparison with the sort of physique (6ft and 14st) that Van der Westhuizen offered. And what he might have lacked in stoop-down and clear-the-ball agility – although he was sharp enough to get the ball away cleanly to his fly-half, Joel Stransky, for that clinching extra-time dropped goal at Ellis Park in 1995 – he more than made up for with his surging bursts.
It was as if South Africa had an extra flanker on the field, one primed to make a break and take on all-comers, be they flailing back-rowers or a poor stranded opposition blindside wing who had this human wrecking ball headed his way.
Van der Westhuizen changed the whole thought process around the scrum-half as a player. He was a strike weapon – 38 tries in 89 Tests is a return of which an international wing would be proud – but he was also a primary defender.
Opponents had to work out whether to take him on (and few succeeded), match size with size, or go down another route. His ability round the fringes meant that flankers could not afford to break off early and get stuck into the opposition fly-half or three-quarters. Joost made them stay honest.
There were to be other tribulations in his life – a high-profile extra-marital affair and drug issues – but nothing was to define him as much as the manner in which he faced his later years. He was dignified, proactive, inclusive and courageous. He was a warrior in a Springbok jersey. And he was, too, even in a wheelchair. That spirit simply could not be crushed.