Joost – the eyes had it

The record-break­ing for­mer Bok cap­tain with the ex­pres­sive, in­tense gaze proved his met­tle as scrum half and was brave to the end

CityPress - - Sport - SIMNIKIWE XABANISA sports@city­press.co.za

An ob­ser­va­tion once made about leg­end Joost van der Westhuizen, who died at the age of 45 this week, stands out for me. Some­one said he had the eyes of a Ger­man U-boat cap­tain.

Quite who said that es­capes me – it could have been while the Boks were on a tour of the UK or New Zealand in the 1990s – but the point was that with Van der Westhuizen, the pas­sion al­ways showed in those blue-green eyes.

When mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease (MND) fi­nally got the bet­ter of this war­rior on Mon­day, peo­ple’s mem­o­ries were of the ex­pres­sive eyes that had be­come his only mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, af­ter ill­ness had eaten away at his phys­i­cal prow­ess, con­fined him to a wheel­chair and af­fected his speech.

Like most of us, Van der Westhuizen was a walk­ing con­tra­dic­tion.

As a 1.88m tall, 93kg scrum half, he cut a nat­u­rally im­pos­ing fig­ure. The eyes played their part ac­cord­ingly – they could be cold, pierc­ing, dis­mis­sive, cut­ting, de­fi­ant, fu­ri­ous, sparkling – se­duc­tive even, when the oc­ca­sion de­manded. All in equal mea­sure.

Sportswriter Ed­ward Griffiths, who is also for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of the then SA Rugby Foot­ball Union (Sarfu) and now boss of the UK rugby club Sara­cens, was also struck by the Van der Westhuizen gaze.

“There was al­ways a kind of in­ten­sity about his eyes. They didn’t lie,” said Griffiths, who co-au­thored the book The Spring­bok Cap­tains, in which Van der Westhuizen fea­tures.

“Whether it was dis­in­ter­est, mischief or a sense of hu­mour, [his look] was al­ways so in­tense.”

Just how in­tim­i­dat­ing the look was shows in how peo­ple are un­sure about whether the sports giant’s eyes were blue or green – pre­sum­ably be­cause no­body dared look into them long enough to find out.

Ei­ther way, they matched the uni­forms of his two beloved teams: the Blue Bulls and the Boks.

He cap­tained the Bulls to 1998 and 2002 Cur­rie Cup vic­to­ries and played a huge part in tak­ing the Spring­boks to 1995 World Cup glory.

His ado­ra­tion for the Boks was such that he would use his stare to stamp his iden­tity as the team’s un­of­fi­cial cus­to­dian.

“I re­mem­ber that look well,” said for­mer Bok cap­tain John Smit.

“When we ar­rived at our first camp in Plet­ten­berg Bay, he gave that stare to gauge whether we were there for the right rea­sons. He was a tough bas­tard and made us work for his re­spect. And once we passed the Joost test, those eyes soft­ened on us.”

Griffiths re­calls a story en­cap­su­lat­ing how im­por­tant play­ing for the Spring­boks was to Van der Westhuizen.

In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the 1995 World Cup, Bok play­ers were, nat­u­rally, in de­mand. While on a call with Mau­rice Lind­say, the for­mer chair­man of rugby league club Wi­gan Ath­letic, the su­per scrum half let Griffiths, who was wear­ing his Sarfu hat at the time, lis­ten in on the money Wi­gan was of­fer­ing: £80 000 (R1.3 mil­lion) a year for three years for his ser­vices.

“Joost wanted me to know what his value was, but also that he wasn’t go­ing any­where, be­cause he played for the Boks for the love of it.”

The most sig­nif­i­cant thing about Van der Westhuizen as a scrum half was how his swash­buck­ling style in­spired hero wor­ship, as did his gutsy, sin­gle-minded de­ter­mi­na­tion to over­come ev­ery ob­sta­cle.

De­spite his hunched-over style of play, he dis­played grace, bal­ance and elec­tric pace off the mark. How­ever, many peo­ple felt his size and pace equipped him bet­ter to play flank or wing.

But his type of hero­ics de­manded that he play closer to the ac­tion at scrum half. As Kevin Putt, a one-time ri­val for the Bok num­ber nine jer­sey, one said: “He’s not a scrum half’s arse, but he is an in­cred­i­ble rugby player.”

Van der Westhuizen was a pa­tron saint of lost causes, a char­ac­ter­is­tic dis­played from his school days. Play­ing for his un­her­alded Hoërskool FH Oden­daal in Pre­to­ria, he led the team to the fi­nal of the Ad­min­is­tra­tor’s Cup in 1987, where they lost to fu­ture Bok team-mates Japie Mul­der and Chris Ros­souw’s school, Hugenote.

This would be a re­cur­ring theme through­out his ca­reer as he came to lead two un­der­dog Bulls sides to their Cur­rie Cup ti­tles, made the first front tackle any of us had seen on giant All Black winger Jo­hah Lomu, and de­fied nu­mer­ous ca­reer-threat­en­ing in­juries to en­joy an 11-year play­ing ca­reer.

“He was a hero of mine at school. I had a poster of him in my cu­bi­cle at Pre­to­ria Boys High,” said Smit.

“When I first played for the Spring­boks I don’t know what I was more ex­cited about: meet­ing him or putting on that green jer­sey.”

Tal­ly­ing up the num­bers, it is clear that Van der Westhuizen made a huge con­tri­bu­tion to the sport.

He played 89 tests, scored 38 tries – then a record num­ber – and won 60 of the Bok games he played.

Th­ese num­bers speak of his guts and tenac­ity (he ef­fec­tively played the 1999 World Cup on one leg); of how he rev­o­lu­tionised the role of scrum half; and of how he de­spised los­ing.

If those achieve­ments are im­pres­sive, con­sider the num­ber six – the num­ber of years Van der Westhuizen lived with MND. He de­fied doc­tors’ pre­dic­tions that he had only a year to live.

At the time of his di­ag­no­sis, Van der Westhuizen said two things en­cap­su­lated who he re­ally was. Firstly, he said: “They gave me a year to live, f*k hulle (f*ck them)”, and then: “You go through a lot of emo­tions and ask, ‘Why me?’ The real ques­tion is: ‘Why not you?’”

Van der Westhuizen ex­pe­ri­enced fame and for­tune, as well as tri­als and tribu­la­tions, all in the harsh glare of the pub­lic. Ad­mi­ra­tion for his buff physique and hard­earned suc­cess turned to jeers when he was caught in a scandal, snort­ing co­caine with a strip­per. Soon af­ter he came clean about that, the dis­ease struck. That was when Van der Westhuizen’s hero­ism was most ap­par­ent, and his eyes most ex­pres­sive.

He cut a brave, hum­ble fig­ure who fought against the in­evitable with hu­mour and a rare lack of self-pity.

May his soul rest in peace.

He was a tough bas­tard and made us work for his re­spect

JOHN SMIT

He played for the Spring­boks for the love of it

ED­WARD GRIFFITHS

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