Joost van der Westhuizen may have passed away in 2017, aged 45, but as the old saying goes, legends never die.
The former Springbok scrum-half earned legendary status as a member of the Springbok side that won Rugby World Cup 1995, and later through the courage he showed in tackling the debilitating effects of Motor Neurone Disease.
The World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee would have been 50 today had the disease not cruelly cut his life short but his legacy lives on through the J9 Foundation, the charity he founded in 2012 to raise funds for and awareness of MND.
As a rugby player, he left an indelible mark on the game. At a time when rugby was blessed to have great scrum-halves like Justin Marshall and George Gregan, the 1.85m tall Van der Westhuizen stood out, and not just physically.
His sniping runs from the scrum caused opposition defences no end of headaches and his ability to chip-and-chase effectively saw him score a belter of a try against England at Twickenham in November 1995. Arguably, though, he is best remembered for his courage, as a player and as a person.
Van der Westhuizen’s determination to stop a rampaging Jonah Lomu in his tracks, by whatever means possible, was a key feature of the Rugby World Cup 1995 final and Nick Mallett, who would later become his Springbok coach, remembers one tackle vividly.
“He was so driven by personal achievements. Within that, I don’t think I ever came across a guy with as much courage as him, even among the forwards,” recalled Mallett.
“He was the most unbelievably good defender. His tackle on Jonah Lomu, when they went to him straight from the back of a lineout, was probably the tackle of the World Cup. Joost put his head, his shoulders, his neck, both his arms and clasped onto him. That courage epitomised Joost.”
The Springboks won a record-equalling 17 consecutive tests under Mallett in the late 90s when Van der Westhuizen was still very much at his peak.
“That combination of Joost and Henry Honiball was the very best in the world from the time I coached in 1997 until Henry retired in 1999, they were absolutely outstanding,” commented Mallett.
“At the time of his playing, I don’t think there was another scrum-half who had his pace and his ability to beat forwards around the sides of rucks; he could really get away from the flankers quickly.
“Whenever you played against Joost, you were never able to fly off the side of a scrum to put pressure on the fly-half. You had to see the ball leave his hands first. That gave Henry Honiball half a second to a second more time to make a good decision or to play flat.
“For a tall guy, he ran very low to the ground and he used to duck under tackles a lot of the time. But I still think his defence was another level of any other scrum-half in the world, it was almost like having another flanker, he had the same tenacity.
“He was just a wonderful, wonderful player to have as a coach. You didn’t really need to coach him, you just needed to create a structure for him.”
For a wide-eyed youngster like Thinus Delport, who played alongside Van der Westhuizen in all but two of his 18 caps, the Pretoria-born scrum-half was the perfect role model.
“One of the great things was his ability to switch on and focus really intensely for a period of time – until the training is done. His approach was so professional,” said Delport.
Delport’s Springbok career ended when he came off second-best in a collision with another late great of the game – Jerry Collins – in the Rugby World Cup 2003 quarter-final against New Zealand.
But the pair shared one more special rugby moment before Van der Westhuizen passed away.
“I was lucky to play for the J9 team (World Legends) later on in Dubai, and to be there with Joost and his brother, Pieter,” he revealed.
“It took us three years but we won the 10s Masters in Dubai, shortly before he passed. It was great to be able to give him that win and have a final big celebration.
“His mind and his wit was just as sharp as it always was but it was emotional seeing the physical challenges he was having to face up to.”
Van der Westhuizen’s speed of thought, as well his pace, was a quality that fellow Rugby World Cup winner, Japie Mulder, instantly recognised.
“I wouldn’t say he is the best scrum-half I ever played with but he is definitely one of the best rugby players I ever played with,” the hard-running centre said.
“Joost was always one metre ahead of you, him and Andre Joubert, they were always thinking that little bit extra. Just a moment or two before you wanted to do something, they were already there.”
Mulder remembers Van der Westhuizen not only for his dedication and professionalism but his personality.
“Off the field, Joost enjoyed life. He was always laughing and making jokes. We were all young in those days, 24/25, so there was always time for fun afterwards, and I enjoyed that part of Joost as well,” Mulder said.
“He was a brilliant rugby player and a good friend. He was a very positive guy and good for morale in the side.
“In the last couple of years of his life, he showed what he was all about; he was a fighter. I loved the man.”
Like many retiring sports professionals, Van der Westhuizen found it hard to adjust to life in ‘the real world’.
And, in some ways, Mallett says his fight against MND gave him the same level of focus he had as a player.
“It was almost as though he went through a pretty low period when he had to retire from professional rugby. As he mentioned himself, everything had been done for him – he knew exactly what his day would look like and he found it very difficult adjusting back to normal life.
“For about five years he drifted a little bit and then he was unfortunately diagnosed with MND, and in a funny way that sort of pulled him back together again.
“He built the J9 Foundation and I think the last two years of his life he had a real focus on leaving a legacy not only as a rugby player but also as someone who suffered from the most horrible debilitating disease and was determined to help others.”