Rugby world mourns Joost van der Westhuizen

Legendary South African scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen died aged 45 after a long battle with motor neuron disease on Monday.

The rugby – and sporting – world paid tribute to Van der Westhuizen, a giant of the game in the literal and figurative senses, as the news broke.

From the suits to those who played alongside him, everyone hailed the number nine’s guts which was a hallmark of his career and, eventually, underscored his fight against a disease he knew he would never beat.

Mark Alexander, President of the South African Rugby Union, led the tributes, saying: “Joost will be remembered as one of the greatest Springboks – not only of his generation, but of all time.

“As a player, he lifted the Rugby World Cup, Tri-Nations and Currie Cup while establishing himself as one of the best scrumhalves world rugby has ever seen. He was the record holder for the most Test tries for the Springboks for more than 13 years and finished his international career with 38 Test tries.

“He also became an inspiration and hero to many fellow sufferers of this terrible disease as well as to those unaffected. We all marvelled at his bravery, his fortitude and his uncomplaining acceptance of this terrible burden.”

Van der Westhuizen was also a legend at the Blue Bulls in Pretoria and Blue Bulls Company CEO, Barend van Graan, said: “Joost will forever be remembered as the warrior that terrified opposition on the field, and one that took on MND (motor neuron disease) head on while raising massive awareness for the cause.”

Gert Wessel, President of the Blue Bulls Rugby Union, echoed these sentiments: “Joost was an individual with a big heart, both on and off the field. This showed in his approach to the game as he stood back and stepped aside for nothing in his playing. This tenacious attitude clearly came through in his battle against MND as well.”

Sports minister Fikile Mbalula also sent his condolences, describing him as a “great giant and warrior of South African rugby”, adding: “His contribution to our national rugby team was immense. He leaves behind a generation of athletes who aspire for his legendary sportsmanship. We draw lessons from his fighting spirit in both the field playing for our national team and against motor neuron disease.”

Teammate and fellow World Cup winner Joel Stransky told EWN it was difficult to see his friend suffer, especially since MND does not affect the mind, but only the body. Adding: “He was the guy we followed into battle because he never gave up. He was willing to lay his heart, body and soul on the line and he was the guy who knocked over Jonah Lomu.”

Gary Teichmann, Sharks CEO, who played with Van der Westhuizen, also paid tribute, saying: “Joost was a great team man and was an outstanding ambassador for South African rugby. I will always cherish the memories we shared both on and off the field.”

Several teammates including Hennie le Roux, Mark Andrews and James Small spoke to Sport24, all praising Van der Westhuizen’s fight to the end and hailing him as an inspiration, both for his rugby skill and for the tenacity he showed ruing his illness.

Former Fiji Sevens coach Ben Ryan tweeted his condolences, saying: “Heart-breaking to hear that Joost has passed away. A warrior and a gentleman. Let us not forget his spirit and his life. Vei Lomani,” while Monday night’s Varsity Cup matches held a minute of silence in the scrumhalf’s honour.

Even Hugh Laurie, best known for his roles in Black Adder and House, paid tribute, tweeting: “RIP Joost van der Westhuizen, taken by the infernal motor neurone disease at 45. Not a thorn, but a dagger in English sides. Brilliant man.”

Across the world, obituaries hailed him as one of the best ever scrum halves, who redefined the position and became a fearless competitor.

Joost van der Westhuizen made 89 appearances in test matches for the national team, scoring 38 tries. He mostly played as a scrum half and took part in three Rugby World Cups, most notably as a member of the South African rugby team that won the 1995 World Cup. He captained the national side on ten occasions and was part of the team that took South Africa’s first Tri-Nations title in 1998. He played for Provincial State side the Blue Bulls 1993– 2003, including two domestic Currie Cup trophies in 1998 and 2002.

He was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007 and later to the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

In 2011, Van der Westhuizen announced that he had motor neurone disease (MND), also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He became confined to a wheelchair and experienced speech problem, yet still raised awareness issues relating to MND through his charity, the J9 Foundation.