x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup winner fighting a new battle

Joost van der Westhuizen, part of the winning team that inspired a hit Hollywood movie, talks about his battle with motor neurone disease.

Joost van der Westhuizen, right, celebrates with Francois Pienaar, left, and Ruben Kruger, who has since died after a long battle with brain cancer, after winning the World Cup in 1995
Joost van der Westhuizen, right, celebrates with Francois Pienaar, left, and Ruben Kruger, who has since died after a long battle with brain cancer, after winning the World Cup in 1995

Out of the night that covers me

Black as the pit from pole to pole

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul

(From Invictus, by William Ernest Henley)

Dubai, September 2011. The air-conditioning in the swanky restaurant on Palm Jumeirah has failed, and the assembled guests are sweaty, flustered and restless.

The most popular man in the room is the waiter offering up a platter of ice-cold towels. No one can decide whether the heat of late summer in Dubai is less suffocating inside or out.

And all the while, Joost van der Westhuizen could not look any more cool. He does not have a bead of sweat on him. He was on the red-eye flight from South Africa the previous night, but he still looks as fresh as Alpine spring.

It is 16 years now since, in his glorious pomp, he had a lead role in a World Cup match so important it spawned a hit Hollywood movie.

And he still looks that good. He looks to be in the prime of his life, the embodiment of never-ending, indestructible youth.

But then there are the clues. His speech is slurred. Muscles in his biceps and forearm twitch. Once he might have been flexing them unconsciously, the pride in his chiselled physique taking over unknowingly.

Now it is beyond his control. "You can probably hear my speech is slurring, and you see that?" He points to the twitches in his left arm. "My muscles are starting to fall in. That is the motor neurone."

In May it was announced that Van der Westhuizen, now 40, has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease often known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was told he has an 80 per cent chance of living for two to five years.

He has been taking medication, newly released in the United States in March, to combat the effects of the condition. He will have to rise early in the morning to take it if he is to ensure his work as a television pundit, as part of the OSN Rugby World Cup team in Dubai, will be unaffected by his condition.

People might see him slurring words. Yes, it is frustrating, he cannot deny that. But why should it stop him?

"I am a realist," he says. "That's life, hey? I've got a choice: I can stay at home and worry about it, or get out there and live my life while I still can. I tend to do the latter.

"That is why I am here. Rugby is in my blood, and while I can still talk and while I can still do it, that is what I want to do."

It is not in his make-up to give in without a fight. Just hours into his new television role, he had already challenged one of his fellow pundits, Jeremy Guscott, a former rival on the field, to a duel to settle a debate.

Fortunately it was in jest, or the nominated peacemaker, Scott Gibbs, the burly former Wales player who, in 1997, famously flattened Os du Randt on a bullocking run, would have had his hands full.

"I want to keep my mind positive and try to fight it mentally," Van der Westhuizen says. "But it is not easy.

"To me it is about quality of life, not quantity. A lot of people say I could live for five years or I could live for 10 years, but it is not about that.

"I would rather have two years of quality rather than 10 years of being a vegetable."

****

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid

(Invictus)

Dubai, April 2010. It seems like every one of Dubai's estimated 40,000 South African expatriates has made it to the Jebel Ali Shooting Club for the Freedom Day celebrations.

The centrepiece of the afternoon is a rugby match on a makeshift field between a group of long-since retired South Africa international players, and their British & Irish Lions counterparts.

There has been an unforeseen glitch. Some of the best known British players have been unable to get here because of a volcanic ash cloud wreaking havoc with air travel.

But no bother. The biggest star is here. A crowd that would shame most clubs in the UAE's professional football league have turned out to watch.

And most are here to see the great Joost van der Westhuizen, the 89-cap former Springboks captain, who has more tries to his name than any other scrum-half in Test history.

"Him being here meant the legends team could really live up to their name, and so many people were glad to see him here," says Neil Hamp Adams, one of the organisers of the match.

The facts say Van der Westhuizen is 39, but he still looks about 25. And the fire is still raging.

"We have played the Lions five times now and we have won four," he says after South Africa win the game. "It was good to get them back."

There is always a fire burning, a vendetta to settle. The Lions beat South Africa in 1997. It is a defeat which will always rankle with him, and now the British veterans must suffer for it.

Even as the veterans in green stretch to victory, Van der Westhuizen wants more. After being substituted, he still gives the referee a mouthful for sinning against the South Africans. He wants to be back out there. He wants this day never to end.

****

It matters not how strait the gate

How charged with punishments the scroll

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul

(Invictus)

Johannesburg, June 1995. Jonah Lomu is the irresistible force. It is obvious. He cannot be stopped. The whole of the England side tried in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup. No one came close.

Mike Catt was trampled into the Cape Town earth. Tony Underwood was scarred for the rest of his career. The New Zealand wing scored four tries, taking his tally for the tournament to a record-breaking eight. He is unstoppable, that much is clear.

He has not yet met Joost van der Westhuizen.

The first time Lomu gets his hands on the ball in the final, which all are agreed will be his coronation, he is felled by South Africa's No 9.

Scrum-halves are not meant to make tackles like that. Not on speeding freight trains, and not on anyone.

In Playing the Enemy, the book which inspired the movie, Invictus, John Carlin noted the relevance of the hit. He wrote: "The very first time Lomu received the ball, one of the lightest South African players, Joost van der Westhuizen, brought him crashing down with a tackle just below the knees. 'That set the tone for the game,' Francois Pienaar [the Springboks captain] said."

The tackle was deemed so seminal it was mentioned in a book charting the birth of a new, free nation, but it was by the by for the player himself.

OK, so it is his favourite tackle in a career chock-full of them.

But at the time he was just an amateur sportsman, fitting in playing rugby around jobs with security firms, and also as a representative for Canon. The greater significance went over his head. "At that specific moment, I didn't feel anything different, because it was my job to stop him," Van der Westhuizen says now.

"At that specific moment I was so focused on bringing him down. I was fit, my body was in shape, and no one was going to run over us. We would have tackled each other to get to him.

"That is who we are."

Matt Damon's portrayal of Pienaar, the captain, in Invictus suggests that the Bok players had to be coaxed into believing they could win the World Cup, and thus stop Lomu, but Van der Westhuizen remembers it differently. Ninety per cent fact, 10 per cent Hollywood, he says.

"The thing with a South Africa player is when you throw something at us like a Jonah Lomu, it motivates us," he says. "When you do the Haka, it motivates us. When you talk [trash] about us, it motivates us.

"That is who we are. We don't go and sit down in a corner and try to look for excuses. Jonah Lomu never, ever scored a try against South Africa. Why? Because we were given that motivation. That is who we are."

Van der Westhuizen had not needed convincing to believe. Success in that final at Ellis Park in 1995, which is universally regarded as the most emotive moment in the game's history, had been a given for his side ever since one rainy afternoon on the Highveld.

"It was at a training session at Sun City," he says. "We did another fitness session, and Kitch [Christie, the World Cup-winning coach] just couldn't make us tired.

"It started to rain, and at the end of the session, Kitch was standing over the other side of the field and we chased around to him, we slid on our stomachs in front of him and said, 'Come, coach, try to make us tired, what can you do to make us tired?'

"He just smiled and walked away. At that point, we knew we would win it."

These were the best of times for Joost van der Westhuizen.

pradley@thenational.ae


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