Joost van der Westhuizen will be remembered as Springbok warrior who dumped Jonah Lomu in 1995 World Cup

Achievements of former South Africa captain remembered following death after long fight with motor neurone disease.

Former South Africa captain Joost van der Westhuizen, in front, has died of motor neurone disease. Olivier Morin / AFP
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JOHANNESBURG // Joost van der Westhuizen’s place in the pantheon of rugby greats is indisputable.

He earned it the hard way – with grace, skill, but most of all guts.

The South African, capped 89 times by his country, died at the age of 45, having been diagnosed with motor neurone illness, which damages parts of the nervous system, back in 2011.

Taller and heavier than the norm for his position, the Springbok scrum-half played with the conviction that there was never an opponent he could not beat, a try he could not score, or a tackle he could not make.

With raw courage he etched his name into the annals of Rugby World Cup finals on one afternoon – June 24, 1995.

The Springboks, having missed the first two tournaments, were playing the All Blacks, their oldest and keenest rivals, in the final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

In massive Jonah Lomu the All Blacks were fielding the most feared player in world rugby.

The Kiwis had swept all before them on the way to the final and none had an answer to Lomu, the runaway freight train who trampled defenders underfoot like chaff including England’s vastly talented Mike Catt in the semi-final.

The question on everyone’s lips was: “can the Boks stop Jonah Lomu?”

The answer came quite early in the final. Calling a blindside move, the All Blacks sent their juggernaut winger charging through a gap in the Bok defence.

It seemed the men in black would certainly score but there was one man between Lomu and the try line – Van der Westhuizen.

It seemed a most unequal contest but Van der Westhuizen, without a care for his own safety, threw himself at the All Black’s tree-trunk legs, threw a vice-like grip around them, and brought the giant crashing to the ground.

Lomu had been stopped, the crisis averted and the complexion of the game had changed.

One could sense the Springboks growing in confidence as they pushed on to win the game and the Webb Ellis Cup in extra time.

That moment epitomised Van der Westhuizen. And it was his bravery that stood out most – he was always willing to put his body on the line – as summed up by a quote of his after the cup had been won and the threat of Lomu blunted.

“The difference between us and the other nations is that they were scared of Lomu, but we queued up to tackle him!”

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Paul Radley interview with Van der Westhuizen

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Later came the halcyon moment when Van der Westhuizen, responding to Joel Stransky’s call to overrule a planned move, set the ball spinning accurately infield to set his fly-half up for the winning drop goal.

Blessed with exceptional strength and pace, Van der Westhuizen was a key component in then coach Kitch Christie’s plans.

It was his pace that pulled the Australian Wallabies out of alignment to set up a crucial try for Stransky in the opening game at Newlands and aficionados marvelled at the ones he scored himself.

At Murrayfield he broke clean through the Scottish pack to score and a solo effort along the touchline at Twickenham that included speed, power and deft touches was arguably the best of the 38 times he touched down behind the enemy’s line.

In May 2011 came the shock news that he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and that he had a life expectancy of just two to five years.

In response to becoming ill, Van der Westhuizen established the J9 Foundation, after his playing number, in aid of those suffering from the disease.

The pathos of his suffering was heart-rending; a super athlete now confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak and being fed through a tube.

“It is with great sadness that we confirm the passing of Joost. He passed away in his home surrounded by his loved ones. He will be sorely missed,” the J9 Foundation said on its Facebook page. As his condition had worsened in recent days, South African president Jacob Zuma described van der Westhuizen as “one of the best rugby players that the country has ever produced”.

Stransky shared fond memories of his half-back partner. “He’s been such a big part for so many people’s lives for such a long time. He fought so bravely,” he told Johannesburg-based 702 radio.

Mark Alexander, president of SA Rugby, said: “Joost will be remembered as one of the greatest Springboks – not only of his generation, but of all time. He also became an inspiration and hero to many fellow sufferers of this terrible disease. We all marvelled at his bravery, his fortitude and his uncomplaining acceptance of this terrible burden.”

* Agencies

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