Joost van der Westhuizen: True grit to the end

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The story of Joost Heystek van der Westhuizen will resonate.

There was no doubt at the final whistle that he had left it all behind. He went out with the kind of white- knuckle currency sports fans hold dear and it perhaps explains why Joost was admired and adored whatever the Monday morning headlines.

Yes, he was flawed, but he was ours. One of us.

Joost was professional even before the advent of professionalism in the mid-1990s. He played his best rugby after the game turned pro as others among the game’s nouveau riche took their eye off the ball.

He was full throttle and in that we thrilled. Yet we knew he was fallible and we also knew that when you go about your business at breakneck speed something has to give.

His story is one of paradox but also one of rags to riches.

While studying he worked night shifts as a security guard in Pretoria. Years later, he clashed with security guards at the entrance to the boomed-off estate where he lived.

As a scrumhalf he wasn’t the most gifted, yet he bequeathed the warm conviction that where talent stops, ambition starts. His will to succeed was cast iron.

Often when the cause seemed lost, his sheer force of will helped stir his teammates to heights they didn’t believe possible.

His try against England in the World Cup quarterfinals in Paris in 1999 when he was denied space and time was the work of a man on a frenzied, single-minded mission. There were many others en route to him establishing a try-scoring record for the Boks.

While his spirit remained strong, the debilitating disease often confined Joost to a wheelchair in his twilight years.

It didn’t curtail his travelling. I was pleasantly surprised to see him in Mendoza, Argentina, in 2012 for the Springboks’ inaugural visit in the Rugby Championships. The rugby fraternity there welcomed him with arms open and eyes damp.

Our last meeting was in the casino during the golf at Sun City. His broken body limited his movement but he steadfastly remained in the moment.

Even then he did what he did with conviction. He often bristled in press conferences and his piercing gaze left you in no doubt where you stood in his estimation in that moment.

On the field he held honour and valour dear. Asked to captain the Springbok team to the 1999 World Cup, Joost stepped forward and accepted the challenge despite the lingering resentment at Gary Teichmann’s axing earlier that year.

There had been a leadership vacuum after coach Nick Mallett opted to jettison Teichmann.

Back then provincial borders ran deep – like fault lines. Apart from historical animosity from the Cape towards the Bulls man, there was residual resentment at the Teichmann axing from Durban, while some in the Joburg press viewed Van der Westhuizen with the scepticism he harboured for them.

Joost, though, seemed to revel in it. When he got his back up it was usually against a wall.

A player of his ilk we are unlikely to see again for professional sportsmen and women’s every move is now carefully manicured and choreographed.

Joost’s fighting spirit had long secured his place in the pantheon of Springbok greats.

He invoked that spirit right to the end.

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