Joost van der Westhuizen's contribution to Springbok rugby should never be forgotten, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The sharp pick-up from the base of the scrum. The ball in two hands. The hunched shoulders. The distinctive running style. The flashing blue eyes and the gaping mouth that appeared to shout whenever he had the ball in hand.
The sight of Joost van der Westhuizen in full flight is hard to forget.
Van der Westhuizen was a source of inspiration for so many young South Africans growing up and playing the game in the 1990s. Remember that tackle on Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup final? How about that try against the All Blacks in the 1998 Tri-Nations? Van der Westhuizen had the ability to change the complexion of a match in an instant.
Many who grew up in the late 1990s aspired to the standards set by Van der Westhuizen on the Super Rugby and Test stage. One youngster eventually realised that objective.
Fourie du Preez, a long-time admirer of Van der Westhuizen, came through the Blue Bulls ranks in the early 2000s. He made his first Test start for the Boks in 2004, and went on to contribute to the World Cup success of 2007 as well as the Tri-Nations triumph of 2009.
A couple of years later, Du Preez, who at that stage was widely recognised as the best scrumhalf in Test rugby, told reporters that as a youngster he had always looked up to Van der Westhuizen.
'My father would take me to Loftus, and I would watch him play and dream of one day playing for the Bulls and the Springboks and being half as good as him,' said Du Preez. 'In my opinion, he’s the best scrumhalf in Springbok history and ranks up there with the best of his generation along with George Gregan, Justin Marshall and Fabien Galthié. I have the world of respect for him.'
It was some endorsement by a player who is now considered to be one of the Springbok greats. In a 2012 interview with a New Zealand newspaper, Marshall concurred that South Africa has never produced a better scrumhalf.
'He was a magic player. One time I remember he made a break through the line. I was defending deeper, and I thought this was my chance to line him up and put him into a hospital ward.I launched myself, only for him to chip over my head, pirouette around me and score beside the posts,' said the former All Blacks scrumhalf.
In 2011, Bryan Habana broke Van der Westhuizen's Bok try-scoring record. I chatted to Habana in the aftermath of that World Cup pool match against Namibia in North Harbour, New Zealand.
Habana, a winger, went out of his way to acknowledge Van der Westhuizen, a scrumhalf who had managed to score 38 tries in his 89 Tests. Like Du Preez, Habana had grown up watching the likes of Van der Westhuizen and was influenced in part by Van der Westhuizen's feats.
In his prime, Van der Westerhuizen stood at 1.85m and weighed 88kgs. In those days, he was one of the bigger scrumhalves around, and troubled opposing teams with his robust carries from the base of the ruck as well as his thumping defence.
Van der Westhizen has been nothing short of inspirational in his fight against MND as well as his drive to raise awareness and aid those with the same condition.
That said, those of us who were lucky enough to see Van der Westhuizen play in his prime, and even those players who were fortunate enough to play with or against him, will remember him as a game-breaker as well a fierce competitor.
Van der Westhuizen inspired one generation of players with his approach and achievements. A couple of those players have gone on to raise the bar of performance even higher.
The next generation, inspired by the likes of Du Preez and Habana, may reach greater heights in future. When these men surpass their own heroes, they would do well to acknowledge the player who came before. Van der Westhuizen set a high standard at the dawn of the professional era, and should never be forgotten.
JOOST'S STATS AND MILESTONES
All Springbok matches: 111
Test tries: 38 (56 tries in all games for the Boks)
Test debut: 6 November 1993 vs Argentina in Buenos Aires, aged 22
Last Test: 8 November 2003 vs New Zealand in Melbourne, aged 32
Honours: Won the 1995 World Cup and 1998 Tri-Nations titles with South Africa. Became the 48th Springbok captain in 1999. Won the 1998 and 2002 Currie Cup titles with the Blue Bulls. Inducted into the IRB Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007
Records: Most Test tries by a Bok scrumhalf (38), most Test appearances by a Bok scrumhalf (87)
JOOST'S TEST TRIES
1. vs Argentina in Buenos Aires, 6 November 1993
2. vs Argentina in Buenos Aries, 13 November 1993
3. vs Argentina in Johannesburg, 15 October 1994
4. vs Scotland in Edinburgh, 19 November 1994
5. vs Scotland in Edinburgh, 19 November 1994
6. vs England in London, 18 November 1995
7. vs New Zealand in Pretoria, 24 August 1996
8. vs New Zealand in Johannesburg, 31 August 1996
9. vs New Zealand in Johannesburg, 31 August 1996
10. vs Argentina in Buenos Aires, 9 November 1996
11. vs Wales in Cardiff, 15 December 1996
12. vs Wales in Cardiff, 15 December 1996
13. vs Wales in Cardiff, 15 December 1996
14. vs Tonga in Cape Town, 10 June 1997
15. vs British & Irish Lions in Durban , 28 June 1997
16. vs British & Irish Lions in Johannesburg, 5 July 1997
17. vs New Zealand in Auckland, 9 August 1997
18. vs Ireland in Pretoria, 20 June 1998
19. vs Wales in Pretoria, 27 June 1998
20. vs England in Cape Town, 4 July 1998
21. vs Australia in Perth, 18 July 1998
22. vs New Zealand in Durban, 15 August 1998
23. vs Wales in London, 14 November 1998
24. vs Scotland in Edinburgh, 21 November 1998
25. vs Ireland in Dublin, 28 November 1998
26. vs New Zealand in Pretoria, 7 August 1999
27. vs Scotland in Edinburgh, 3 October 1999
28. vs Uruguay in Glasgow, 15 October 1999
29. vs England in Paris, 24 October 1999
30. vs England in Bloemfontein, 24 June 2000
31. vs Ireland in Dublin, 19 November 2000
32. vs Wales in Cardiff, 26 November 2000
33. vs Italy in Port Elizabeth, 30 June 2001
34. vs Italy in Port Elizabeth, 30 June 2001
35.vs Italy in Genova, 17 November 2001
36. vs Uruguay in Perth, 11 October 2003
37. vs Uruguay in Perth, 11 October 2003
38. vs Uruguay in Perth, 11 October 2003
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images
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