Joost van der Westhuizen. Picture: AFP
Joost van der Westhuizen. Picture: AFP

Former Bulls and Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer knew Joost van der Westhuizen from when he was a schoolboy and always admired his fighting spirit.

Van der Westhuizen died on Monday after a lengthy battle against motor neuron disease (MND).

He was 45 and leaves behind two children‚ Jordan (13) and Kylie (10)‚ as well as his father Gustav‚ mother Mariana‚ and brothers Pieter and Gustav.

“I knew Joost most of his life because when I was a young teacher at FH Odendaal he was at school there‚” Meyer told TMG Digital.

“There are so many things you can say about Joost but the one thing that I keep coming back to is that both as a player and person he was a warrior and a fighter.

“It was very sad to see him physically go backwards but he never lost that fighting spirit.

“One incident epitomises that for me: We were at a gala dinner about a couple of years after he was diagnosed with his illness. He was very sick and he couldn’t talk properly at that stage.

“He said something to me and I didn’t understand‚ so I leaned in closer and asked him to repeat what he had said. In Afrikaans he replied: ‘Hulle het my een jaar gegee on te lewe…Fok Hulle! (They gave me one year to live…fuck them.)’

“To me that summed him up perfectly. He was unable to speak‚ was physically frail but he never gave up fighting.

“He went through ups and downs both on and off the field but the one thing about him was he was a fighter and you would go to war with him.”

Van der Westhuizen finally lost his battle against MND after a six-year battle against the disease‚ which degenerates neurons that control muscles‚ but his contribution to rugby was immense.

He revolutionised scrumhalf play because he was big (1.88m‚ 93kg) and a supreme athlete.

“He wasn’t the technically or tactically brilliant scrumhalf but he had a huge heart and he was a proper athlete‚” Meyer said.

“Joost showed that heart until the end.

“He was a big scrumhalf who caused havoc around the fringes of rucks. He scored so many tries from sniping around the fringes.

“And it was largely because of him that rugby union turned to rugby league defences and brought in pillars on ruck fringes. Joost’s style had generated a new wave of scrumhalves who played similarly. League defence was the answer to stopping those sniping runs.

“He could have been an openside flank if he wanted‚ he was that gifted.”

Van der Westhuizen captained the Boks at the 1999 World Cup‚ four years after playing an influential role in the victory at the 1995 World Cup on home soil. He carried a severe injury through the tournament.

He scored a crucial try on the stroke of halftime against England in Paris‚ which gave the Boks momentum going into the second half. Jannie de Beer slotted five drop-goals after the break to steer the Boks to victory.

“At the 1999 World Cup he played with a knee ligament damage‚ which showed what a warrior he was‚” Meyer said.

“He was one of those rare players who wanted the ball and wanted to make things happen. He wasn’t scared to take responsibility.

“His influence was global. When I coached a young Ben Youngs at Leicester‚ he told me that he wanted to be like Joost.”

And Meyer recalls a moving moment when Joost thanked those that had been influential in his career‚ in a quiet and moving way.

“I’ve coached over a thousand players and what you get back from them is minimal‚” Meyer said.

“When he retired [in 2003]‚ he had a small function for 15 or so people who had been huge influences in his life and career – people such as former Bulls coach Eugene van Wyk and Dr Henry Kelbrick.

“To each person that had made an impact on his life‚ he gave us a framed jersey with a plaque thanking us for making a difference in his life.

“That said a lot about him as a person. It’s my most treasured rugby memento.”

- TMG Digital/TMG Sport

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