Monday 23 October 2017

Obituary: Joost van der Westhuizen

Legendary South African scrum-half who 'manned up' to his involvement in a sex video in a best-selling autobiography

WOLRD RECORD: Springbok Joost van der Westhuizena
WOLRD RECORD: Springbok Joost van der Westhuizena

Joost van der Westhuizen, who died last Monday aged 45 after a six-year battle with motor neurone disease, was regarded as the best scrum-half of the modern era and one of the greatest Springbok rugby players of all time. He played a key role in South Africa's historic World Cup-winning team of 1995, later celebrated in the film Invictus, and captained his country when it reached the semi-final of the 1999 tournament.

When his 10-year international career was ended through injury at the 2003 World Cup, he had won more caps (89) and scored more tries (38) than any other Springbok in history. His try tally, still a world record for a scrum-half, has only been bettered in South Africa by Bryan Habana, a wing three-quarter.

Matt Dawson, his opposite number for the British and Irish Lions in 1997, said van der Westhuizen had "blistering pace, raw strength and an incredible will to win. Every time he had the ball you felt he could score a try, no matter how small the gap or how big the defender. He was not only one of the greatest scrum-halves but probably one of the 10 top players in the history of the game".

His most memorable feat was in the 1995 World Cup final at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, when he brought down the giant All Blacks winger Jonah Lomu, in full flight after Lomu had crashed through several tackles and seemed certain to score. It emerged afterwards that van der Westhuizen had done this despite having cracked two ribs early in the game.

He was born into a sternly Christian Afrikaner family in Pretoria on February 20, 1971. The van der Westhuizens were South African aristocracy, having arrived in the Cape in 1662. Joost was educated locally and graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Pretoria.

He played all his provincial rugby for the Blue Bulls in northern Transvaal, leading them to the Currie Cup in 1998 and 2002. At 6ft 1in (unusually tall for a scrum-half), with jet-black hair and light blue eyes, he had film star looks and enjoyed a period after his retirement from rugby as a television sports presenter.

This career ended abruptly in 2009 when he was shown in a sex video with a former stripper who said they had taken drugs together. This episode also broke up his marriage to the singer Amor Vittone. Ugly details of their divorce proceedings filled the gossip columns for the next few years, with mutual allegations of infidelity and battles over money and access to their two children.

Having previously denied that he was the man in the sex video, he finally "manned up", as he put it, in his autobiography, Man in the Mirror, which became a bestseller.

The first intimations of a serious medical condition had emerged in 2008 when he lost strength in his right arm. At the time this was assumed to be the result of a rugby injury. In 2011, after a doctor friend had been shocked by his muscular weakness while playing around in the family swimming pool, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease. The prognosis was one to five years.

As the disease progressed, he was confined to a wheelchair and relied on others to feed him and help him. During this process, he seemed to undergo a spiritual conversion and rediscovered his Christian faith.

As a young man, he had been admired for his looks and his prodigious athletic gifts, but not much liked, either by his team-mates or the sporting public.

By his own later reckoning, he was wilful, arrogant and recklessly self-indulgent.

The shock of a terminal diagnosis changed his personality - as one writer put it, "he was a flawed man transformed by adversity". He told an interviewer: "I am a better person now. I became an arrogant person and now I'm back to the reality of life and what is important."

Despite his incapacity, he travelled the world on behalf of the charity he launched, the J9 Foundation, which raised awareness of motor neurone disease and sought funds for research into its largely unknown causes. His aim was to fund a research centre for MND in South Africa, and to this end he visited clinics in Boston, Ohio and Edinburgh to seek their cooperation.

"It was sometimes difficult to stay positive and motivated," he said, "but now I'm a firm believer that there's a bigger purpose in my life and I am very positive, very happy."

He leaves his former wife and their children, Jordan and Kylie. (© Telegraph)

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