Former South Africa rugby captain Joost van der Westhuizen passed away on Monday aged 45 after a six-year battle with motor neurone disease. His death has reverberated through the sport that he loved with a number of players, past and present, praising him for his fierce competitiveness and undeniable quality. What strikes me is the warmth with which people have remembered him. Former England scrum-half Matt Dawson in particular wrote a heartfelt piece about Joost, who he saw as a friend, despite their many battles on the pitch.
It is rare for an athlete in any sport to achieve the things that van der Westhuizen did; 89 caps for his country, 38 international tries and a famous world cup win. However, it is rarer still for a player to genuinely revolutionize their sport and forever redefine the position in which they played. His contribution to the sport cannot be overstated as he changed the nature of the scrum-half position, typically a facilitating role, into a fully rounded position. Like the Cruyff turn or the more modern Sonny-bill Williams offloads, Westhuizen’s trademark runs from the base of the ruck left defenders wishing they had stayed at home. Granted, it had been done before, but never as devastatingly effective as this. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and, if this is true, then modern players like Ben Youngs have a lot to thank him for.
It would be easy to simply list of Joost’s achievements on the pitch but I would rather focus on two, frankly epic feats of quality and bravery. The first is his staggering try record: 38 in 89 tests for the springboks. That puts him fifteenth on the all time list of international try scorers and, to this day, he remains the only scrum-half on the list. The second is a moment that would go on to define his career when, in the world cup final in 1995, he did the seemingly impossible and toppled the great Jonah Lomu in full flight. He showed impressive technique but many players had showed that technique simply wasn’t enough against this player. Joost, as he did throughout his career, balanced his technique with a stubborn refusal to lose. That moment could have happened a hundred times and he never would have missed the tackle because he simply couldn’t comprehend not making it.
It is cruel that Joost has left us at such a young age when he had so much life left to live but he will be remembered as an all time rugby great. In 2011 he was given two years to live and, typically, he defied the odds. He was tireless in his work supporting charities researching motor neurone disease and, while his body failed him, his passion and love of the sport endured and still endure through all rugby fans who will never forget him.