South African rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen has died in Johannesburg at the age of 45, the J9 Foundation confirmed on Monday.
The former Springbok and scrumhalf fought gallantly against motor neuron disease (MND) for nearly six years.
The disease causes the degeneration of cells that control muscle movements.
When he was diagnosed with a form of MND in 2011, at the age of 40, Van der Westhuizen was given two-and-a-half years to live, yet he held on with the unwavering determination he showed on the field playing for the Springboks, the Bulls and his beloved Blue Bulls.
Francois Pienaar‚ the 1995 World Cup-winning captain, described him as “extraordinary”.
“It’s time for reflection‚” Pienaar said in a text message to Times Media.
“Joost was extraordinary on the field and fought until the end. We will miss him deeply.”
His family were with him when he died, the J9 Foundation’s
Claire Kaye-Grobler said in a statement on Monday afternoon.
“He passed away in his home surrounded by his loved ones. The family remain strong under the circumstances‚ however are devastated at the loss‚” the foundation said.
“This is a great loss to so many around the world and the family would like to extend their greatest gratitude for the love and support shown over this difficult time‚” the foundation said.
Van der Westhuizen was diagnosed with a form of MND‚ known as amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), in early 2011.
Throughout his debilitating illness, which left him confined to a wheelchair and using a computer to communicate, Van der Westhuizen raised awareness about the disease and formed the charitable J9 Foundation to support his efforts.
“I had a choice to either stay at home and die or continue to live my life,” he told The Telegraph in 2014.
“I have a platform and now I am using it to help with awareness of MND. They [the doctors] are going to tell them [MND patients] they have two to five years to live and that’s it — but you live as long as you want, as long as you are positive. They told me 24 months.”
He had recently responded to reports in January this year that he was on an oxygen machine “for his survival”, telling Huisgenoot that the machine helped him breathe and sleep better.
“I’m doing well under the circumstances,” he told the magazine. “I pray for everyone who is sick because with Jesus there can be miracles. While we’re still breathing, God has a plan for us.”
President Jacob Zuma said: “SA has lost a legend and one of the best rugby players that the country has ever produced.”
Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula said Van der Westhuizen's passing was a sad chapter in SA's sporting history.
"His contribution to our national rugby team was immense. He leaves behind a generation of athletes who aspire to his legendary sportsmanship," Mbalula said, adding that SA drew inspiration from his fighting spirit.
Van der Westhuizen represented his country 89 times during a decade-long career starting in 1993.
Born and raised in Pretoria, he was part of the South African team that emerged victorious from the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory in front of former president Nelson Mandela.
A respected leader, he went on to captain SA at the 1999 World Cup and was the most-capped player in Springbok history by the time of his international retirement in 2003.
In 2007, he was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame — run by a charitable trust — and seven years later became a member of the World Rugby Hall of Fame when the trust’s structure merged with the International Rugby Board’s own hall of fame.
The highlights of his career as scrumhalf included World Cup appearances in 1995, 1999 and 2003; the 1998 Tri-Nations; and Currie Cup trophies in 1998 and 2002.
After his retirement from the sport and before he fell ill, he enjoyed a highly public profile in SA while working as a television pundit, though he became the target of celebrity magazines that reported on his extramarital liaisons and alleged drug use. He later admitted to some of those claims.
Van der Westhuizen lived in Johannesburg and is survived by his wife, singer Amor Vittone, a son and a daughter.