Joost’s brave battle will never be forgotten

Date published: February 8 2017

Joost van der Westhuizen’s death marked the passing of a rugby icon but apart from his rugby exploits, Joost won renewed respect for his fight against Motor Neuron Disease (MND).

While the 45-year-old’s death was terribly sad, it brought back memories of his playing days, especially his role in helping South Africa to win their first Rugby World Cup title in 1995.

Joost was an outstanding player and all the praise showered on him over the past few days is richly deserved.

When Joost burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced youngster in the early 1990s few would realise that he would become one of the greatest Springboks ever and that he would revolutionise scrum-half play.

He became the prototype of the modern day number nine with his sniping runs around the fringes of rucks and mauls, before crossing for tries, becoming his trademark.

An incredible competitor, who could turn a game on its head with a moment of brilliance, Joost was fearless and feared by his opponents and he would eventually represent South Africa in 89 internationals and score 38 tries which is the most by a scrum-half at Test level.

Known for his never say die attitude, Joost will always be remembered for taking the fight to New Zealand during the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final in Johannesburg.

His text-book tackle on behemoth All Black wing Jonah Lomu has been replayed countless times in recent days and he showed that same fearlessness and fighting spirit in his fight against the debilitating disease which would eventually claim his life.

Although Joost was a brilliant rugby player, who lit up fields across the world with his dynamic approach to the game, and is rightly regarded as one of the greatest ever players in his position, it is his response to the death sentence which is MND for which I will always remember him.

The former Blue Bull stalwart didn’t just wither away and accept his fate. Given two years to live when he was diagnosed with the illness in 2011, Joost defied the odds and lived on for almost six years.

During that time, he used his position as a famous rugby player to raise awareness on his illness and took the fight to the disease.

Through his J9 Foundation, Joost established three centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town to assist MND patients with access to healthcare and research facilities.

A close friend of mine, John van Dyk, with whom I played club rugby in Cape Town, was also diagnosed with MND two years ago and was in attendance when one of those centres was launched in Cape Town in 2015.

I asked John recently what his impressions were of Joost and he replied: “He’s a genuine guy, with a great sense of humour.”

That was great to know. And although he is no longer with us, we should remember Joost for what he did both on and off the rugby field.

by David Skippers