A grey cloud descended on the rugby community as the news started to spread of Joost van der Westhuizen’s passing. Given the disease he was battling, it was not completely unexpected but, when an icon passes, it still sends shockwaves.
Joost burst onto the South African rugby stage as South Africa’s old regime was being wound up, which paved the way for our reintroduction to international competition. The Currie Cup would be replaced by the World Cup as the pinnacle of rugby achievement and, as it turned out, would prove to be an awe-inspiring vehicle for nation-building that paved the way for South Africa’s successful social integration of past enemies.
There were many doubts about Joost in his early years, primarily that he was too tall to work the base of the scrum, but Joost’s immense determination would see him overcome the doubters.
“Joost trained like a professional in an amateur era,” said his former World Cup-winning captain, Francois Pienaar, at the memorial service held for Joost at Loftus Versfeld. However, Joost also had immense talent—for a scrum half to hold the South African try-scoring record (38) for so long is a testament to the quality he possessed.
Joost led the Springboks to the 1999 Rugby World Cup, where the Springboks lost in the semi-final to Australia. In 2003, following a turbulent time for the Springboks, Joost retired from all rugby after the All Blacks knocked them out of the World Cup in the quarter-final.
The indelible image of Joost is that of him taking down Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup final, but he did not have a flawless career. There were tough injuries to endure and recover from, he had to fight back, on occasion, from being dropped and there were sections of the media and the public who just didn’t believe he still had it in him as he neared the end of his career.
Along with all those pressures and living the life of a sporting superstar, Joost experienced a number of personal troubles that saw him and his loved ones battle through some trying and testing times that were played out through the national and international media. However, his greatest battle was around the corner when, in 2011, he was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease (MND), for which there is no known cure. For Joost and his supporters, it was unthinkable that this disease could trap a perfectly good mind in a body that was in a constant spiral of decay. For such a young man, a World Cup winner, Blue Bull hero and Jonah Lomu-tamer, it was nothing short of tragic.
In an interview with former teammate Kobus Wiese in 2012, Joost revealed that it was tough in the beginning. Questions such as “Why me?” were his first thoughts as he told close family and friends. However, as time went by, the fighter that South Africa came to know and love during his rugby playing days came out with all guns blazing. Refusing to accept defeat (or, in this case, certain death), his question changed to “Why not me?”. In the same interview, he said: “Why not me? What makes me so special?”
This time, however, there was no tryline to cross, no perfect pass to make and no break around the ruck to dash over the line for glory. As daunting as his situation was, this was no mortal All Blacks team. This was an unbeatable disease that would not be stopped.
The J9 Foundation was set up to help fellow MND sufferers and he devoted the rest of his life to this cause, and to spending time with his young family that he would soon leave behind.
Joost was never one to give up on a battle and he didn’t give up on this one. Living well past the time the doctors gave him, he fought the disease with every fibre of his being. No battle he fought between the white lines of the rugby field—no matter how great—will ever measure up to his fight against MND—not his three tries against Wales, not his memorable tackle on Lomu and not one of his 38 tries in 89 tests. These moments will never be forgotten either, but it cannot compare.
Joost passed away shortly before his 46th birthday after the doctors said he wouldn’t make 42. He leaves behind Amor (his estranged wife), his parents and two children (Jordan and Kylie).
Ironically, the man-mountain Jonah Lomu himself passed away in 2015 from a heart attack related to a serious kidney disorder. The loss of such giants of the sporting world offers us a constant reminder of our own mortality yet, at the same time, serves as a constant reminder of what the human spirit is capable of achieving.
* Post Script: Another rugby legend, South African-born former Bishops student Dan Vickerman, recently passed away at the age of 37. Vickerman played 63 tests for Australia, his last being in 2011.