The Glory of '95: Joost was a man who simply refused to give up ...
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TWENTY-FIVE years on from the 1995 Rugby World Cup, an enduring photograph from early in the final captured Joost van der Westhuizen cutting down a rampaging Jonah Lomu at his ankles.
Lomu, the blockbuster at that tournament, never scored that day (or ever against South Africa, remarkably!) and his opposite number in that final, James Small, later said that Joost’s courageous dive at the boots of the behemoth to bring “it” to a crashing halt, boosted the team’s belief that Lomu could be stopped.
That was Joost in an instant - he simply refused to lose... and three years on from his tragic death from Motor Neuron Disease, I am reminded of the doyen of rugby broadcasting, Bill McLaren, who said this of Joost, with deep respect: “The Springboks had no right to be playing an outrageously gifted flank at scrumhalf!”
McLaren had succinctly summed up Joost. It is fact that the Springbok legend was not refined in the artistry of scrumhalf play, but he was the first player that a coach picked purely because of his indomitable spirit that infused his teammates with belief.
New Zealand winger Jonah Lomu is tackled by South African scrumhalf Joost Van der Westhuizen during the Rugby World Cup final in 1995. File picture: Mark Baker/Reuters
Joost, in truth, was not an overly skilled scrumhalf - his pass was suspect and his box kicking was untidy - but coaches always picked him because of his infectious refusal to give up, plus his insatiable knack of scoring tries.
In 2003, following the Springboks’ defeat to England in a World Cup Pool game, I asked him if the Boks’ campaign was over (the defeat set them up for a quarter-final against New Zealand, and that Springbok team, quite frankly, was one of the poorest ever).
He stood up and said, with clenched fists: “It is not a case of if we beat New Zealand but when we win the World Cup!”
And he meant it given his blazing eyes and clear restraint to not jump over the top table and punch my lights out. He would dearly have loved to...
Those eyes ... women were mesmerised by them, rugby players feared them.
I was on tour in New Zealand in 1996 when Joost was discussed on a TV show. One pundit said he had “gunslinger eyes that belonged at the OK Corral” while another on the show countered with: “He has the ruthless, icy gaze of a German U-Boat commander scanning the Atlantic for ships to sink.”
But it was with ball in hand that Van der Westhuizen was at his best. He had “white line fever” more than most and had the tenacity to dash over for try after try.
Joost’s 38 tries were scored in 89 Tests, an incredible record for a scrum-half. Bryan Habana was expected as a wing to score more than a scrum-half having been on the receiving end of creative movements (he finished with 67 tries from 124 Tests).
But Joost was not just a finisher. He was a demolisher. If he had a sniff of the tryline, he would almost always score. One of his most famous tries was at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, the Springbok quarter-final victory over England most remembered for the five drop goals kicked by Jannie de Beer.
But those at the Stade de France in Paris will recall that the momentum shift came seconds before half time when Joost, bandaged almost from head to foot because of innumerable injuries, set sight on the corner flag and ran through a white-coloured wall to miraculously ground the ball.undefined
From my position in the media box, I had a view of England coach Clive Woodward, and when Joost scored that try I saw him throw his head back in dismay. England heads dropped, the Boks entered the change rooms in front after a fierce first half, and De Beer did the rest.
That is possibly the best image we should recall of Joost. He was bandaged like a mummy and took half the England team on his back as he forced that winning try.