THE doyen of rugby broadcasting, Bill McLaren, remarked in his book “Rugby’s Great Heroes”, that the “Springboks had no right to be playing an outrageously gifted flank at scrumhalf.”
McLaren indeed summed up Joost. It is fact that the Springbok legend was not refined in the artistry of scrumhalf play but he was among the first players that a coach would pick purely because of his indomitable spirit, his sheer competiveness and utter refusal to lose.
In short, Joost was not a skilled scrumhalf – his pass was often suspect and his box kicking was poor, and coaches knew that, but they always picked him because he had an X factor for scoring and creating tries and a sheer refusal to lose that the rest of the team fed off.
The more a situation in a game deteriorated, the harder Joost played. He just would not give up.
I recall asking him at a press conference in 2003 following the Springboks’ defeat to England in a key Rugby World Cup Pool game if the Boks’ World Cup campaign had been won and lost (the defeat set them up for a quarter-final against New Zealand, and the Springbok team quite frankly was one of the poorest in decades).
He leaned up out of his chair and said with clinched fists said: “It is not a case of IF we beat New Zealand but WHEN we win the World Cup!”
And I knew he was not bull-dusting 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 in Zealand as a journalist in 1996 when Joost was being discussed on a TV show. One pundit said he had “gunslinger eyes that belonged at the OK Corral” when the going was tough in a match, but another on the show countered that with a wonderful description: “He has the ruthless, icy gaze of a German U-Boat commander scanning the Atlantic for ships to sink.”
One of the most famous photographs from the 1995 Rugby World Cup final was taken early in the game when the block-busting All Black wing Jonah Lomu was on the rampage and Van der Westhuizen (who had taken numbing injections to a rib injury to enable him to play in the final) flung himself into the path of the Tongan and cut him down at the ankles.
Lomu never scored that day (or ever against South Africa) and his opposite number at Ellis Park, James Small, later said that Joost’s courageous fling at the boots of the behemoth to bring “it” to a crashing halt, gave the team added belief that Lomu could be stopped.
But it was on attack that Van der Westhuizen was at his best. He had “white line fever” more than most and had the power, strength and tenacity to bash himself over for try after try.
If a Springbok or Bulls pack was advancing near the opposition line, it was an almost certainty that the rampaging scrumhalf would smash over. He was that determined.
Van der Westhuizen for some time held the record for the most tries as a Springbok, eventually broken by Bryan Habana.
Joost’s 38 tries were scored in 89 Tests, an incredible record for a scrumhalf. Habana, superb as he is, would be expected as a wing to score more than a scrumhalf after having being on the receiving end of creative movements (to date, 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 that day will recall that the momentum shift in the game came seconds before half time when Joost, bandaged almost from head to foot because of innumerable injuries, set his sights on the corner flag and ran for his life though a white-coloured brick wall to miraculously get the ball down in field.
From my position in the media box, I had a view of Clive Woodward, and when Joost scored that try I saw Woodward throw his head back in dismay. He knew that it was a telling moment.
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 van der Westhuizen. He was bandaged like a mummy and took half the England team on his back as he forced that game-breaking try.
By Mike Greenaway
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