On Monday (6th February) the sad news was announced that the great South African scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen (JVD) had died at the age of 45. In 2011 JVD was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Over the next few years he did much to raise awareness of and money to conduct research into this cruel disease; showing the same fighting spirit which led to his being one of the true greats of rugby of any era.
I heard it said this week that JVD was the first muscular scrum half and the first large scrum half (a position traditionally played by smaller men). I would disagree with both of these statements. I grew up watching Gareth Edwards, often considered the greatest Welsh rugby player, who was a strong, muscular and dynamic scrum half. The only thing he lacked was height, but in the early 1980s Terry Holmes played for Wales, and he was 1m87, the same height as JVD. So, I would not agree that JVD was the first muscular scrum half or the first scrum half who was as large as a back-row forward.
It is sometimes easy when someone has died far too early to overstate their greatness. But, JVD was a great scrum half, there is no denying that. He was an inspiration to his team, and someone that other teams feared. In the 1995 World Cup, he was the first player to successfully tackle Jona Lomu, who had run rampant through every team against which the All Blacks had played.
But, JVD showed his true greatness in the way with which he dealt with his motor neurone disease (MND). He took it as an another challenge, and spent the rest of his life raising awareness of MND and raising money for researching in to it. In the video below is an excerpt from an interview which JVD did with the BBC in late 2014 or early 2015. It was replayed on Monday evening, the day of his death. Listen to his final words, when he is asked whether his MND may be considered a “blessing”
In a way I am glad I had MND. I now know what life is about
RIP Joost van der Westhuizen.