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Farewell to a legend and good guy

It probably isn’t surprising that the man now remembered by everyone just as Joost was probably the only member of the Springbok Class of 2003 that actually enjoyed Staaldraad. The infamous military style training camp will feature in the nightmares of his contemporaries, but Joost appeared to thrive on it. He didn’t mind toughing it out, he didn’t mind doing things the hard way.

That indomitable spirit was probably what saw him survive so long through his tragic illness. I can recall doing a book interview with Rudolf Straeuli in Durban in early 2013. He told me he was flying to Joburg that afternoon and heading to Pretoria for a gathering of 1995 Boks. He said the main purpose was to “say goodbye to Joost”.

Well Joost hung on for almost another four years, and his refusal to give in might just have inspired some of those who had been to a succession of goodbyes to think he could just defy the odds and manage the impossible. But alas, this week motor neuron disease finally claimed its toughest victim.

Joost’s long and brave fight swept away some of the memories of the controversies that bedeviled part of his life in the public eye – his support of Staaldraad just being one – but even had it not been so, his legend would never have been diminished.

He wasn’t a classic scrumhalf – there were aspects of his game that purists in the art of scrumhalf play would have considered less than perfect – but he was a damn fine rugby player, perhaps the finest South African player of his generation. He was certainly the most impactful and influential and anyone who disagrees should recall the role he played in three of the defining triumphs of the 1990s.

James Small was the man the media focused on in the buildup to the 1995 World Cup final. The charismatic wing did stand his ground in his face to face confrontation with the man mountain that was Jonah Lomu. But it was Van der Westhuizen, with the help of Japie Mulder, who did the most to quell the threat with his fearless tackling and simple refusal to allow his team to give ground to the opposition.

Then came the deciding game of the 1998 Tri-Nations. The Boks against the Wallabies at Ellis Park. The South Africans hadn’t won a Tri-Nations yet. They needed to beat Australia to do so. That they did was largely because the undeniable man of the match, Joost, spent the entire game in Stephen Larkham’s face, terrorising him. Larkham was new to the flyhalf position back then, and Van der Westhuizen exposed that vulnerability for his team’s benefit.

That was one of the finest games he played for his country, if not the finest, but it wouldn’t have been far behind his contribution to the massive win over England in a World Cup quarterfinal in Paris in 1999. His five drop-goals saw his halfback partner, Jannie de Beer, take all the accolades, but it was the No 9 who should really have walked away with the man of the match award.

That was the year that Nick Mallett dropped Gary Teichmann. Rassie Erasmus’ unavailability for the role meant that Joost had to lead the side to that World Cup, and he wasn’t a perfect fit as team leader. But boy was he determined, and while the Boks relinquished their hold on the Webb Ellis trophy, they were only really denied by that man Larkham – yes, he did get his comeuppance – who kicked an extra time drop-goal in the semifinal.

The Boks clinched third place with a win over the All Blacks in the bronze play-off game that was memorable only for the Breyton Paulse try that won it and for the steely blue eyes that Van der Westhuizen trained on me as he scolded me for writing his team off. I wanted to point out to him that although they’d probably gone a bit better than expected in a horrible year, they still hadn’t won the World Cup, but it was the Van der Westhuizen passion speaking.

It was one of quite a few occasions when myself and Joost could have been said to be in adversarial roles, but we always somehow got on very well. In fact I remember feeling quite chuffed during a training camp in Plettenberg Bay when a colleague told me that during an argument with some journalists about the perceived crimes of the fourth estate – someone had obviously written something that hacked him off – he used me as an example of how it should be done in that in his view I was very critical but did it fairly and without an agenda.

I’m well placed to speak about how much Joost changed and developed as a person during his decade as a Bok. I can recall interviewing him towards the 1994 tour of New Zealand. He divulged a massive exclusive scoop – Australia were trying to lure him into becoming a Wallaby. But the entire interview was conducted with me asking questions in English and him answering in Afrikaans.

We agreed after a cumbersome beginning to the interview that it would be disrespectful to his home language for me to try and speak Afrikaans. And he didn’t think his English was good enough. He was just a callow youth back then. I wasn’t at all sure I’d got it all down right, so I was elated when a beaming Van der Westhuizen strode over to me the next day to inform me that he’d seen the story and he could happily inform me that my understanding of Afrikaans was way better than I thought it was. Later Van der Westhuizen was fluent in my home language, but sadly I can’t say the same.

He had a sense of humour too. After the last match of the 2000 November tour I was drinking in the lounge of the team hotel in Cardiff when Joost strode in wearing a funny hat. We’d clashed in Argentina early in the tour because I’d written about Thando Manana’s objection to aspects of the Bok initiation process, but he made it clear he wanted to let bygones be bygones.

“I’m on holiday, and you’re on holiday,” he said, “so now we can have a drink together.”

During our conversation he asked me if it might help his career if he moved from the Bulls to the Stormers. I told him that coming to the Stormers would be a good idea, but he should play for Boland rather than Western Province because Dan van Zyl was the WP first choice and Joost would need game time if he was going to be Dan’s back-up at Stormers level.

Of course I wasn’t being serious but I said it with a serious expression and there was an intense rivalry between Joost and Van Zyl. So it did cross my mind that I was being foolish. But Joost thought it was hilarious and for the next hour he was calling people over and asking me to repeat to them what I’d just said to him. As well as being a rugby legend, Joost was also a really good guy. At least in my experience he was.

I hope he rests in peace in the knowledge that he will never be forgotten for not only his contribution to South African sport but also for what he did for the fight against the disease that claimed his life when he was way too young.

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