Dan Retief

A warrior for the ages

Posted in Home by Dan Retief on 6 Feb 2017
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Joost van der Westhuizen on Monday finally lost his battle against the dreadful debilitating disease that was first diagnosed in May 2011.

News of his passing came to me while at lunch with a few good friends. We drank a toast to the great scrumhalf and I was surprised at how moved I was that Joost had finally hung up the green-and-gold No9 jersey he loved so well.

His death was inevitable.

I recall being surprised at the almost light-hearted response in the room at a huge fund-raising banquet held for him at Emperor’s Palace near O.R. Tambo shortly after it became know that he was ill.

His American doctor, Erik Piori, who after tests had confirmed that Joost was suffering from MND (Motor Neuron Disease), had bluntly told the room that there was no cure for the malady and that none was even on the horizon.

I recall being deeply shocked. For me Joost was a glorious, if flawed, athlete and Dr Piori seemed to have said that we must prepare ourselves for the inevitable.

That was in 2011 and it says much for Joost’s fighting spirit that he hung in until now – a fortnight before his 46th birthday – before the wasting tentacles of MND finally shut down his body.

I have written tributes to Joost for various publications so for this personal memory on my own website allow me to bring up the fleeting images and incidents that come to mind.

Joost will of course forever be linked to one of the most glorious episodes in South African sport for it was he who passed the ball that allowed Joel Stransky to kick the drop goal that won the World Cup for the Springboks at Ellis Park in 1995.

There is a superb picture of Van der Westhuizen making that pass and he appears in many of the other refulgent images of that storied sequence but for me his greatest contribution came a long time before that tense final went into extra time.

It happened in the 12th minute. The All Blacks brought Jonah Lomu steaming onto the ball and he crashed through in front of South Africa’s posts.

Lomu was the ogre, the monster winger who it was said would destroy the Boks and this was the moment everyone had feared.

Surely it would be a try. Only one Springbok was left in his way, No.9 on his back, and Joost van der Westhuizen stood his ground, dipped his shoulder, grabbed the churning legs in an iron grip and broke Lomu’s charge – holding him up for long enough for the other Boks to scramble back and help him snuff out the threat.

There were many other unforgettable Joost moments. Strikingly big for the position he played, immensely strong, possessed of whippet-like pace he had the predatory instincts of a cat going for the kill when it came to scoring tries.

Van der Westhuizen scored tries in each of his first two tests in Argentina in 1993 and established himself as a special player the following year by breaking through the entire Scotland pack for a try that Bill McLaren described as one of the most remarkable he had ever seen.

There were others – a solo effort down the touchline at Twickenham, a hat-trick against Wales, a sniping break and score against the All Blacks that sparked a comeback from 23-5 down for a 24-23 win in Durban in ’98 that proved crucial to SA winning the Tri-Nations for the first time.

Joost was often in the news, often for the wrong reasons, but he was an outstanding rugby player as evidenced by his 89 caps, 38 tries (a mark eventually surpassed by Bryan Habana in the 2015 World Cup), the fact that he captained his country in World Cups in both 7s and 15s and his induction into the IRB’s Hall of Fame.

It says much of Van der Westhuizen’s status as one of the greatest scrumhalves of all time that he played much of his career up against two other superb denizens of the No9 jersey, George Gregan and Justin Marshall.

I learnt that Joost was suffering from what is called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the New York Yankees baseballer who succumbed to its ravages some 70 years previously. The prognosis I found was as grim as it was in Gehrig’s day, as it is now – rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of less than five years, with no impairment of mental functions.

The cause of ALS remains unknown. All that is know is that it is cruel — the motor function of the central nervous system is destroyed but the mind remains fully aware to the end.

One of the most difficult interviews I ever did was with Joost for the Sunday Times.
He masked his pain with humour. “I’m not pisshed,” he quipped “it is just the way I now speak.”

He told me that he had taken the apartment he was staying for only six months “because I don’t know where this thing is going to take me.”

The atmosphere was charged with pathos as we spoke as I could not drive Dr Pioro’s gloomy prognosis from my mind.

Joost revealed an interesting possible cause of his illness.

Dr Pioro asked him whether he had been exposed to fertilizer (he might have meant pesticides) because there were a number of cases in which farm workers, footballers and golfers had contracted MND. Poison had been discovered in the paint to mark the fields.

Joost felt that if that it might explain why he became a victim. “From the age of 5 I have been playing rugby and what did I do? I passed the ball, and what did I do before feeding a scrum or passing? I licked my fingers,” he confided.

Just a theory but I could see Joost was struggling with why had come down with MND.

“I often asked, why me? Straight away the answer came ‘why not me?’ I didn’t even know about MND but it registered with me that if this is the cross I have to bear to help future generations then I’ll do it. If this is what is meant for me; then I’ll do it.

It was as though a heavy load lifted off me when those thoughts took hold. You can either be totally negative or get on with it,” he explained about the setting up of his J9 Foundation to help other sufferers.

The determination and the bravery Joost displayed as a player was far exceeded by his fight for life and to leave a legacy to help those also struck down by motor neuron.

Joost went down some of the dark passages in the labyrinth of life, but emerged to seek redemption.

Few know that Van der Westhuizen had a Springbok badge tattooed on his rump (“so it can never be taken away from me”) and that before all his test matches he would hang his match-day jersey over the bedside lamp in his hotel room, “just to remind me what it meant to me.”

If ever One Man played his heart out for One Country it was Joost Heystek van der Westhuizen.


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