x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Van der Westhuizen not throwing his dummy

The decorated Springbok No 9 tells William Johnson he will never forget the incident involving Matt Dawson in 1997 and expects to have his competitive juices flowing today.

Joost van der Westhuizen, left, and Matt Dawson during the 1997 series in South Africa.
Joost van der Westhuizen, left, and Matt Dawson during the 1997 series in South Africa.

Revenge tasted sweet for South Africa last summer when they avenged defeat to the British & Irish Lions side in 1997. The 2-1 defeat at the hands of Ian McGeechan's side nearly 13 years ago was difficult to swallow for a proud nation crowned champions of the world two years earlier.

It still to this day rankles with Joost van der Westhuizen who, for all the garlands that have accompanied his distinguished career, has the red No 9 jersey of Matt Dawson, his opposite number during that memorable series, nailed to cellar wall of his Johannesburg home as a reminder of the moment that probably define's his career. How van der Westhuizen wishes he could have nailed that red shirt to the Newlands turf at the time after Dawson fooled him with an outrageous piece of play that clinched the first Test between the rivals.

"He sold me a dummy, I bought it and it cost us the series," said a still-smarting van der Westhuizen. The painful reflection was delivered in a tone that left no doubt that he will struggle to forget the crucial error of judgement he made in the first of three hard-fought confrontations which was effectively decided by Dawson scampering over in the corner after bamboozling four would-be tacklers as the Lions came out on top 2-1.

That missed tackle on his opposition number, which helped bring about 25-16 defeat, was a rare blemish on what was otherwise an enormously impressive career record of a player who will be remembered as one of the greatest Springboks in history and one of the most brilliant Test scrum-halves of all time. Van der Westhuizen, now 39, who swapped shirts with Dawson after their epic Cape Town battle, was speaking as he prepared to renew hostilities with the Lions - albeit on a less physical scale - for this evening's Legends encounter as part of the annual South Africa Freedom Day celebrations.

Even a relatively friendly affair such as this date at Jebel Ali Shooting Club at 5pm stirs the juices in the body of van der Westhuizen, who retired from international rugby in 2003. He had spent 10 successful years barking out orders behind a formidable Springbok pack for 89 matches during which he scored 38 tries, which is still a record for a Test scrum-half. "I always compare a Lions line-up before kick-off with the New Zealand haka [tribal war dance]," said van der Westhuizen who modelled his own impressive style on that of Gareth Edwards, his boyhood hero, the Welsh legend who is arguably one of the few No 9s who can look back on an even more glittering personal record.

"They are the best two things for we South Africans to see in front of us on the rugby pitch because they give us even more motivation than usual. "In South Africa you play only every 12 years against the British & Irish Lions. So you really want to be part of that tradition. To be part of it makes you proud. But it is something that you can't plan like you can for the Three Nations [which takes place every season].

"If it comes your way you have to be in top form and at the peak of your fitness to take advantage of the opportunity to be selected to play at that level." Van der Westhuizen maintained that tonight's match will be full-on despite the advancing years of his own team and the opposition led by former Scotland centre Scott Hastings, who toured Australia with the Lions in 1989 and was also selected for the series in New Zealand four years later.

"The thing with the Legends rugby is beforehand they all say 'let's just throw the ball about and have some fun'," he said. "But in practice it doesn't work that way. Everybody is smiling at the start but by the time the final whistle comes they all realise that they've been in a tough game after all. "You can't take away that competitive spirit from our game, no matter how old you are. They all switch back into their former characteristics. You will never take the fighting spirit out of those individuals even at Legends level, especially when the Springboks are up against the Lions. That's what makes it so exciting."

Van der Westhuizen dismissed suggestions that he will be taking a considerable medical risk when he runs on to the Jebel Ali pitch after a serious scare last summer when he was rushed to hospital after a suspected heart attack. "I was just working too hard for too long and I realised that I had to slow down a bit," he said after emerging from a controversial period in his private life which brought admissions of marital infidelity and drug taking.

"I wasn't looking after my health properly at the time," he added. "This gave me a real wake-up call. "I have been working hard to recover from that heart problem. I have been a trainaholic all my life. I have been preparing intensely for this for the last two months. I think I am OK to play. I just love playing rugby." Van der Westhuizen's lingering passion for the game makes him an aspiring Springboks coach.

"Not yet, though," he said. "My kids are only six and four and I want to spend a little more time with them. "Maybe in another year or two I could start to consider a coaching position. It would be nice. If anybody at any time asks me to get involved again with the international team then I'm available. "There is such a tremendous supply of talent in our country. I felt very privileged to be part of it all as a player and I look forward to becoming part of it all again one day.

"It has been great that the coaches have been able to make the most of that talent and get them to play extremely well. "They will definitely be as hard to beat as ever when the next World Cup comes around [in New Zealand late next year]. They still have a lot of senior players in key areas and you can't buy experience, especially in decision-making positions." In the meantime, van der Westhuizen will seek to extend his three-year association with Legends rugby and keep his hand in occupying a consultancy role for Murray Mexted, an illustrious former All Black captain, at his New Zealand coaching academies.

"You always want to give something back to a game that has served you well and this is my way of doing that," he said. Van der Westhuizen's Legends team, which include other former Springbok luminaries such as Jan van Wyk, John Allan, Pieter Muller, Brett Harrison and Marc Watson in their ranks, are coached by Ian McIntosh, who was in charge of the Test side from 1993-94. The South Africans have had a trouble-free passage to the UAE compared to that of their opponents. The volcanic ash crisis over the skies of Europe led to Hastings and his predominantly English colleagues arriving by various delayed routes.

They were four players short of a full compliment at yesterday's team meeting. Stephen Boyle, the manager, was an added absentee. Their squad will be made up to 22 by the addition of former Arabian Gulf international players. wjohnson@thenational.ae