Proud to have known Joost
The first time I ever saw Joost van der Westhuizen play was at Ellis Park in February 1993. It was my first view of rugby in South Africa and nothing was the same as the game I had left in Britain. Except the weather, that is. It poured with rain.
From a scrum five metres out, Joost broke around the side, slipped, and aquaplaned over the line to score. There was a touch of Gareth Edwards about it and I made a mental note to keep an eye on this chap.
Two years later I was with the real Gareth Edwards in Cardiff, discussing the imminent Springbok selection for Saturday’s test against Wales. Incredible as it seems in retrospect, Springbok coach Kitch Christie was expected to pick Johnny Roux at scrumhalf, due to his more reliable kicking game. Gareth scratched his head and looked quizzically into the middle distance.
“He must be a hell of a player...” he said, diplomatically.
Joost made the starting line-up, and his play over the next 12 months brooked no argument. He had springs in his heels, a dazzling turn of pace, magnificent defence and a nose for the tryline. His best try in a Springbok jersey came almost exactly a year after that Wales test, against England at Twickenham.
From a line-out on the England 10m line he broke down the touchline, beating Kyren Bracken and chipping the ball over Tony Underwood, before re-gathering and scoring in the corner. It's on Youtube and every time I watch it I think, this time he'll step into touch, but he never does.
[scroll to 57secs to see the try]
Joost could operate in confined spaces, which reminds me of an evening spent in Port Elizabeth in 1993. Northern Transvaal had beaten Eastern Province in a Currie Cup game and a few of us decided to expend some youthful energy at a disco. When we arrived the dance floor was empty, but then Joost decided to dance.
Suddenly it seemed that every girl in Port Elizabeth had exactly the same idea. He was surrounded, but given the fact that it was a disco, not a rugby field, he didn't hand off anyone, or sidestep his way out of trouble. My abiding memory is of those piercing green eyes and the lopsided smile as he tried to strut his stuff whilst under the equivalent of house arrest.
I got to know Joost well when he joined SuperSport shortly after his retirement from the game in 2003. He was married to Amor by then and it was not unusual for Joost to rush away from Loftus after a commentary and join her on stage in time for the encores.
2011 was a World Cup year and SuperSport filmed a series of panel discussions with greats of the game, looking ahead to the tournament. Joost was part of the panel and while his answers were coherent, to those that knew him well there was something about his voice that seemed wrong. On May 12th that year Joost’s publicist announced that he was suffering from a muscle-related neural disease.
Six months after the announcement, I was MC at a function honouring the recently retired Sharks captain, Stefan Terblanche. Joost had been Terblanche’s captain in his test debut against Ireland in 1998. It was a memorable debut too, with the winger scoring a hat-trick of tries.
Just before proceedings got under way the doors to the function room eased open and an entourage shuffled in. At its centre walked Joost. He sat down, signed a few autographs and just before the lights dimmed I asked him if he would like to say a few words, but would entirely understand if he would rather not.
He turned, smiled that lopsided grin and said, “No problem.” Only then did I realise how badly his voice had deteriorated since I had last heard him on those panel discussions. Too late to back out now, I thought, and at an appropriate moment, invited him up on stage to talk about Stefan. He walked slowly, but unaided, had a small problem with the steps, and accepted the microphone I offered him. Then he said, “One good thing about speaking like this is that everyone just assumes you’re pissed.”
It brought the house down and he held his audience spellbound for the five minutes his voice lasted. “I remember Stefan’s first test very well,” he said. “After he scored his second try I gathered the guys together and said, ‘Ignore everything we practiced. Just give the ball to number 14.’” He was helped back to his table and, after a few more autographs and a sip of water he was gone.
And now he won't be coming back. So here's to you, Joost, a true original and my favourite scrumhalf. I'm proud to have known you.