Joost van der Westhuizen – The great warrior goes out fighting in his toughest battle

Joost van der Westhuizen was a phenomenal rugby player, widely regarded as the best scrumhalf of his generation. He played 89 times for South Africa, scoring 38 tries (both Springbok records when he retired), and captaining the team 10 times. He still holds the world record for the most Test tries scored by a scrumhalf. He played in three World Cups (1995, 1999 and 2003). He won two Currie Cups (1998 and 2002), a Tri-Nations title (1998) and, most famously, the World Cup (1995). He was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame. His determination in the face of crippling adversity was strong. In December 1998, he tore his ligaments in his leg but built up the muscles around the damaged ligaments so that he could play in the 1999 World Cup. The Springboks came third with Van der Westhuizen playing heavily strapped, in pain, and without functioning ligaments in one leg. He said “mentally I knew I was tough enough”. That mental toughness saw him survive a fatal illness longer than medical experts had predicted. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2011, though he felt the first symptoms in 2008. He was given an 80% chance of surviving for two more years, but lived a further five years. His reputation was damaged in 2009 by a sex and drugs videotape scandal, the subsequent breakdown of his high-profile marriage, the loss of his job as a SuperSport commentator, and public humiliation. But his determination in the face of a deadly illness endeared him to the public once again as he emerged with humility and admitted to his indiscretions. He set up a charity, the J9 Foundation, which is devoted to issues of motor neurone disease. The disease reduced his 1.85m, 89kg body to a skeletal frame. It took away his ability to walk and talk. It was unable to break his legendary mental strength. He fought his biggest battle with determination and courage. He was the greatest of Springbok warriors. His finest hour came in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. In May 2011, I got him to reminisce about that famous game just as he was starting to slur and limp. He said it would probably be his last lucid interview, though he would live to give many more. – David O’Sullivan

What are your memories of that week, building up to the final? You’d seen Jonah Lomu. The media was in a lot of hype. The public was in a lot of hype about tackling Jonah Lomu. Was that your focus for that week? Tell me about that week.

Yes. My main job for that specific game was to mark Jonah Lomu, to help James Small as well across the fence because he’s mocking him and also Mehrtens: we knew that Mehrtens was the one that they were going to focus on for a possible drop-goal. Those were my three main focuses: cross the fence, Lomu, and Mehrtens. I must say, I think we pulled it through, through preparation. Our preparation was phenomenal. Each person knew exactly how to handle each guy. We knew exactly what to do. In essence, I think that if you watched the game again, you’d see we would have tackled each other to get to Jonah Lomu. Interestingly enough, I still believe today that New Zealand played the wrong gameplay. If they used Jonah Lomu as a decoy, they would have won.

If you think about the tackle of me under Lomu played on the inside, and everybody tackle in; there was a double overlap on the outside. If they’d decoyed him and play outside, we would have been in trouble. I still believe they played the wrong game plan because we were ready. That’s exactly what we expected and we were so well-prepared for that final. There was such a belief on the day when we had our captain’s run in the morning… In the bus, there was a sense of quiet confidence. I can’t think back of one player (even myself) thinking for one second that we’re going to lose.

The other guys (James and Japie) have spoken about seeing Jonah for the first time and actually being a little startled at how big he was. You’re a taller guy than those two are, for you when you saw him for the first time, did you get upset?

No, I must be honest, he was everything I expected. He was huge and I weighed 87 kilogrammes, I was a thin little boertjie from Pretoria and here this massive monster came out and he’s taller than me, I think his thighs were the size of my hips, so he was big and he was fat, and I must say, he was impressive throughout the tournament. So for us it was a goal to get there.

When you arrived at the stadium, Nelson Mandela came into the dressing room wearing the number six Springbok jersey. James Small has no memory of this whatsoever. Do you remember that moment?

What I recall as I was tying my boots and I saw the door open and these huge bodyguards came in and I thought, okay what is this now and then Mr Mandela came in and wow, when we saw the jersey it was a question of, we knew that the country was behind us, that was a sign. Immediately I switched off and focused, because you can’t have external factors disrupting us, but for that split second we were disrupted and for that split second he gave us even more confidence, so it was a positive disruption.

Sean Fitzpatrick says that when he saw Mandela talking to you guys when he was being presented to the teams, he looked at his own players and he could see defeat in their eyes because of that. Was Mandela that significant a factor for you?

I must say, yes. I’ll tell you why, as we walked out the whole crowd went, “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson” and that was an unbelievable moment. There was a lot of confidence and you could see in his eyes when he shook our hands that he was sincere, that wasn’t a political game, he wanted us to win. It’s good to know they knew it.

Tell me about facing the Haka, you’ve faced the Haka a few times, what was that Haka like?

We couldn’t wait and I think the mistake they made by doing the haka is, us South Africans used it as motivation and we were so motivated. When Kobus walked forward we all started to walk forward, but what I can remember is I always faced my opponent, whether it was Bachop or whether it was Mehrtens, and that day it was Bachop. When they do the haka I face him in the eye and the movement he looks away I know I have him and Bachop never ever looked me in the eye.

That tackle on Jonah, it was a try-saving moment surely, but can you picture in your mind that moment?

Definitely, I was on my way towards the corner for cross-defence because I could see Mehrtens is taking a flat ball and normally a flat ball, you will skip to the outside and on my way there, I saw the gap open and I saw Jonah Lomu coming through.I think in a sense I was a bit lucky, I was well-prepared. My mind was so focused on him that I just went for him. I think he fell over me, I don’t think I was a tackle, but I did the tackle and then the guys came in to support. It’s not about a tackle, it’s about the team. Japie had a brilliant tackle on him on the outside, we did it for each other, and I think that’s more important than to look at one tackle.

The game itself (I’m talking about the regulation play, the 80 minutes), do you have particular memories, Ruben Kruger’s try, or a role that you felt was significant that you played?

Yes well, my focus was on Mehrtens, that’s mainly what I focused on, especially when they were on half, around 22, there was one specific moment where I was right in the middle on the 20 where I was organising the defence and my eye just caught Mehrtens falling back and I just charged and that was the one he pushed to the right. I think I was lucky to pick him up there, but again, we were well prepared.

He had to alter his handle didn’t he?

Yes, he suddenly had to alter his angle. There were two other incidents where he dropped and one went over. My main focus was just to let the Fords keep on gaining momentum, specifically the Ruben Kruger try, it was pick and go. The guys just went and I firmly believe it was a try. I spoke to Ruben and he said it was a try, but nonetheless my focus was on defence and let the Fords get forward momentum.

Let’s talk about the now famous dropkick. I don’t think that you get enough credit for the role that you played in that. It’s all Joel’s understandably, but you take us through what happened and you evading Stephen Bachop.

Yes, I remember before the scrum, Francois called an eight-man move to the right-hand side and the eighth man was Straeuli then. As I put the ball in, I picked up, and Bachop was following me. Joel saw it as well and we both shouted, “Cancel”. Joel suddenly cancelled and he gave me the call and I had to shout to the Fords and hope that they will hear my call, “Cancel, cancel” because Straeuli was actually supposed to pick up at this second break. I think Bachop made the biggest mistake in his rugby career because he was supposed to mark Dale, number nine on the right-hand side always, defensive left-hand side must always mark the fly half and he came to tip my pass and he didn’t pick Dale up. I knew I had to get the pass from Wayne and luckily I did. I went underneath his hand and got it way and Joel had all the time in the world to slot the kick because of Bachop’s mistake.

You make it sound, I think, a lot easier than it was though. He was all over you wasn’t he, didn’t you have to get that pass under him?

Yes, I just knew and luckily Straeuli stuck his leg out a bit further to keep him away. It was tricky, but luckily I had the experience to do it.

Did you think at that stage it was the winning kick, because there was still about six minutes on the clock?

I was hoping so. We knew that with the All Blacks, the game was never gone. I knew when we got back; all the guys actually just calmed down, went up to the zone again, and focused on our game to get into their half. I think one thing that’s more famous was my knock on at the end, I think it’s the best knock on I ever had. I remember the scrum moving forward, I wanted to pick the ball up and I knocked it and I went, “You know, yes what did you do, it’s in the last second of the game, now they have the ball” and that’s when the final whistle went, so I had the most famous knock on in history.

I’m sure you remember, I remember that you had that knock on.

Don’t worry, I know about it.

When the whistle went, in your career (before or since), was that your biggest moment?

I must be honest, yes. I was a high jump athlete; I think I jumped higher than I did back then. In essence, it wasn’t about the cup, I firmly believe it was about reaching a goal, you know the six-month preparation, what we went through as a team. We would have died for each other to be quite honest and I think to reach to reach that goal together, that’s why we all went down and we said a prayer of thanks. I think that’s more important than the cup.

Nelson Mandela presents the Rugby World Cup trophy to Francois Pienaar

Did you have any inclination about the political side of things that you had?

Not at all, I must be honest. We didn’t know what we’d achieved, it only sank in a few days after when we started to realise what is happening, when you go to a petrol station and the guys just clap hands and wherever you go, everybody just shakes your hand and then you start to realise, wow if a game like rugby can achieve this, I want to see this more.

Did it significantly change you as a person, Joost?

Yes, it did?

In what way did it change you?

In a good and a bad way; in a good way where you care more for other people and I have a thing where I say, “You have to go through a test to have a testimony”, that was a test in a positive way, but also what happened later is that I started to become a person that I don’t even know anymore. I would call it arrogance because you achieve and you achieve and you don’t know how to cope with it and then everything revolves around you and that’s when you make negative mistakes and that’s what happened with me, but I would never blame the nine to five, I would just blame my own rugby career.

I’m sure that it’s a great comfort to you that you’re able to look back and say, not only did you win a world cup, but you had this major political role of reconciliation.

Definitely, it’s phenomenal and you know, since then Mr Mandela phoned me on my birthday, he invited us for lunch, my wife and I, and after that, I went to Argentina for the Premier of the Invictus movie to present it there and to be part of changing South Africa, it’s nice.

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