Joost, the Springbok warrior who dumped Lomu
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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.
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.
Lomu threat blunted
It seemed a most unequal contest but Van derWesthuizen, 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!”
Later came the halcyon moment when Van derWesthuizen, 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 derWesthuizen 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.
Yet his determination, guts and humour shone through. “I’m not pissed (drunk), I just speak like this now,” he quipped at a benefit banquet to explain his slurred speech.