A personal appreciation of the former Springbok captain, who died on Saturday aged just 45.
The final of the 1995 World Cup will stick in my mind for a lot of reasons, especially given the slightly unusual circumstances in which I watched it.
I saw the game in the bar of a private pub on a private estate in Northamptonshire, just up the road from the private cricket ground at which I was playing. We had planned the game so that the very extended tea interval would coincide with the rugby match. I spent the entire game sitting next to one of the opposition players, sharing in the excitement of seeing the All Black side who had trounced England in the semi-final so thoroughly outmaneuvered by a smaller side who simply seemed to want the win more. And then we resumed the game and I bowled the same player with the first ball of the opposition’s innings. In cricket as in rugby, camaraderie starts and ends at the white line!
No-one seemed to want that win more than the Springbok scrum half Joost van der Westhuizen. He seemed to be everywhere that day, buzzing around the New Zealanders like a hornet. A crushing tackle stopped the mighty Jonah Lomu in his tracks, a deft pass set up the winning drop goal for Joel Stransky. We didn’t know at the time that the All Blacks were suffering from the after-effects of food poisoning, but we didn’t know that van der Westhuizen was playing with broken ribs sustained in the semi-final the week before, either.
As a player, van der Westhuizen continued to be that mixture of bravery and contradiction, both on and off the pitch. On it, he combined that lightness of touch with a fierce rugby intelligence and, of course, a power that belied his size. Gareth Edwards may have been his better as an all-round scrum half and Pierre Berbizier as a tiny irritant at the base of the scrum, but none before him had that crunching tackling ability, whilst possibly only George Gregan since has been able to win a game by sheer will-power the way that van der Westhuizen could. As an opposing supporter, you delighted in what he could do, but hated that he could do it to your team.
Off the pitch, he could be thoughtful and abrasive, often in the same sentence, a committed Christian whose marriage was ended by an affair. If he was not universally liked, though, his thoughts on the game of rugby were always respected.
Joost van der Westhuizen was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2011. Call it what you will – MND, ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease – it is a horrible and incurable illness. I know, I watched my grandfather die from it. It was typical of van der Westhuizen’s strength and determination that he survived almost six years when the disease kills most sufferers in three. Like Jarrod Cunningham, who died of the same illness in 2007, he set up a foundation to fund research into the disease. He died in hospital after suffering from respiratory failure caused by it and becomes the third player from that 1995 final (after Lomu and Ruben Kruger) to die.