Farewell to a fleet-footed Bok battler
Van der Westhuizen changed the scrumhalf rules
Joost van der Westhuizen succumbed to an illness that was slow and debilitating, and brought an early end to the life of a South African rugby superstar — the sniper-sharp, Mercury-footed, iron-clad-shoulder hero on one glorious day that made the world smile down on a new and fragile democracy.
It is said that New Zealand rugby coaches use a picture of Van der Westhuizen bringing down All Black Jonah Lomu giant during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final as a textbook example of the art of tackling.
When the two met during Lomu’s visit to SA in 2015, Van der Westhuizen — then confined to a wheelchair, his body withered by the motor neuron disease (MND) he had been diagnosed with in 2011 — said Lomu had brought the best out of him.
Lomu died not long after their meeting after a long fight with a kidney disorder.
Both of them brought out the best on June 24 1995.
"I saw the gap open up and saw Lomu come through," said Van der Westhuizen. "I just knew in that split second that either my name was going to be Michael Catt [the England player Lomu had trampled into the ground in the 1995 semifinal] for the rest of your life, or take him down.
"I think in a sense I was a bit lucky…. I think he fell over me."
Van der Westhuizen revolutionised the scrumhalf position and was, perhaps, the greatest player of his generation. Tall for a scrumhalf at 1.88m, he was strong and fast, born with a gift to see the game develop in slow motion at full speed, his assassin’s eyes able to see the killing shot before anyone else.
His life was a whirlwind after the 1995 World Cup. He married singer Amor Vittone and together, they became the local version of David Beckham and Posh Spice. Then it fell apart. A sex video showed him taking drugs with a stripper. He denied it and then apologised.
As he struggled with MND, Van der Westhuizen admitted the 1995 World Cup had changed him for the better and for the worse. It had made him more aware of being kinder to other people, but "when you achieve and achieve and you don’t know how to cope with that, and everything revolves around you, and that’s when you make negative mistakes".
On Monday, at the age of 45, two days after he had been rushed to hospital, Van der Westhuizen’s less than ordinary life ended.
He is survived by his wife, two children, his parents and two brothers.