Rugby world pays tribute to Joost van der Westhuizen

by AFP

South African legend Joost van der Westhuizen died on Monday aged 45 after a long battle with motor neurone disease, triggering a wave of tributes to one of rugby's greatest.

The former scrum-half, Springboks captain and 1995 World Cup winner was diagnosed with the condition in 2011 and his declining health had been closely followed by anguished fans around the world.

"It is with great sadness that we confirm the passing of Joost. He passed away in his home surrounded by his loved ones. He will be sorely missed," the J9 Foundation, which was set up in his name, said on its Facebook page.

Mark Alexander, president of SA Rugby, called van der Westhuizen "one of the best scrum-halves world rugby has ever seen".

"Joost will be remembered as one of the greatest Springboks -- not only of his generation, but of all time,"- Mark Alexander

"He also became an inspiration and hero to many fellow sufferers of this terrible disease.

"We all marvelled at his bravery, his fortitude and his uncomplaining acceptance of this terrible burden."

President Jacob Zuma said that South Africa had "lost a legend and one of the best rugby players that the country has ever produced".

Joost van der Westhuizen will go down as one of rugby's greatest. Photo: Getty ImagesJoel Stransky, who hit the winning drop goal in extra time of the 1995 World Cup final, shared fond memories of his half-back partner.

"He's been such a big part for so many people's lives for such a long time.

He fought so bravely," Stransky told Johannesburg-based 702 radio.

Ex-Springbok head coach Heyneke Meyer saluted van der Westhuizen's courage.

"There are so many things you can say about Joost but the one thing that I keep coming back to is that both as a player and person he was a warrior and a fighter.

"It was very sad to see him physically go backwards but he never lost that fighting spirit."  

On Saturday van der Westhuizen was described as "critical" after he was rushed to a Johannesburg hospital. He had complained about having breathing problems.

The incurable motor neurone disease, which damages parts of the nervous system, had left him frail and confined to a wheelchair -- a shadow of his athletic former self.

He had been given two to five years to live when he was diagnosed in 2011.

In 2015, a fragile van der Westhuizen joined fellow 1995 World Cup champions at Ellis Park Stadium for an event to commemorate 20 years of the team's historic victory.

Seated in a wheelchair, he posed for photographs with his former team-mates.

His doctor and friend Henry Kelbrick had told Rapport newspaper that the revered star had on Friday night prior to his hospitalisation complained that he was short of breath.

"His spirit never at any stage gave way to his illness," said Kelbrick.

"Joost already had all his affairs in order two years ago because the disease is so unpredictable."

The flamboyant player was dogged by cheating scandals during his heyday and was estranged from his singer wife Amor Vittone, although they remained together during his illness.

Joost van der Westhuizen at England training after he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. Photo: Getty ImagesThe couple had two children aged 10 and 12.

"I realise every day could be my last," he told the BBC in 2013.

He set up the J9 Foundation to promote awareness around motor neurone disease, using the number 9 from his shirt number.

Van der Westhuizen's deat hsent shockwaves through the rugby world, and many high-profile figures paid tribute to the South African great overnight.

"RIP Joost van der Westhuizen. An incredible player and fighter to the end. The first of the new age 9s."   - Former Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll

 "In a team talk I can still remember his eyes looking right through you with so much determination. He had this sparkling personality, you could still see it in his eyes even those last years." - Morne du Plessis, manager of 1995 World Cup-winning Springbok team

   "Very very sad to hear this, he was the ultimate player and competitor, thoughts with his family."    - England's 2003 World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward

   "Rugby has lost a true warrior today." - Will Greenwood

   "A great friend has left us with an incredible legacy in rugby. Joost inspired on and off the field. Rest easy blue eyes...."   - Ex-England scrum-half Matt Dawson

   "He's been such a big part for so many people's lives for such a long time. He fought so bravely. He was a naughty little imp - there was always chaos around him! I remember him crawling under the table and setting my shoelaces on fire."   - Joel Stransky, 1995 world champion with South Africa

"One of the best players in the world! It was a privilege to see him in action!" - Naas Botha, captain of the Springboks in the 1980s

"Thoughts and love with the family of Joost. Great man." - Former Wales international Scott Quinnell

 "You will be missed!"    - South Africa cricket star AB de Villiers