South African scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen makes a pass during the 1995 World Cup final against New Zealand at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
South African scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen makes a pass during the 1995 World Cup final against New Zealand at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. JOHN PARKIN

World mourns World Cup-winning Springboks icon

RUGBY UNION: More than that tackle on the mighty Jonah Lomu. More than his pass to Joel Stransky for that drop-kick six minutes from time. More than the three or four or five tackles he made on Lomu, Joost van der Westhuizen, the Springbok great who passed away on Monday, never forgot his one slip just seconds before the glory of victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

"One thing that I think was more famous was my knock-on right at the end," Van der Westhuizen said. "It was the best knock-on I have ever had. I remember the scrum moving forward, I went to pick it up and I knocked it. All I could think, 'What did you do? It's the last second of the game and now they have the ball.' And then the whistle went to end the game. So, I had the most famous knock-on in history."

When he spoke those words in 2011, Van der Westhuizen, by then diagnosed with motor neurone disease, had begun to lose control of his body. His speech had begun to slur, his mouth struggled to catch up with his brain, his body tired quickly. But he spoke through his eyes. Those eyes. Everything came from those eyes, described quite perfectly by Robert Kitson of The Guardian as "pale assassin's eyes". Through all of his career, those eyes pierced through opponents, colleagues, journalists and friends. They never settled, they sometimes softened when calm, but the focus, the intensity, they never left the man South Africans simply called Joost.

Graeme Bachop would not look into Joost's eyes at Ellis Park on June 24, 1995. Van der Westhuizen wanted him to. He sought them during the haka, tried to throw down the challenge, but the All Black scrumhalf wanted nothing to do with it.

"We couldn't wait. Us South Africans use the haka as motivation, and when Kobus (Wiese, Springbok lock) walked forward, we all started to move towards them. What I can remember, I always face my opponent, if it was Bachop or (Andrew) Mehrtens, and that day was Bachop. When they do the haka, I look them in the eye, and the moment they look away I know I have them. Bachop never looked me in the eye."

He had him. He had Bachop six minutes from time in the final. The great athletes speak of time slowing down in the most intense of moments, when the frantic hurly-burly slows to a tick, when the mind can see things happen before they do. Van der Westhuizen saw Bachop make a mistake.

"Before the scrum, Francois (Pienaar, the Springbok captain) called an eight-nine move to the right-hand side. (Rudolf) Straeuli was the eighth man. As I put the ball in, I picked up that Bachop was following me, Joel (Stransky, the Springbok flyhalf) saw it as well, and we both shouted 'Cancel!' I was shouting to the forwards, hoping they would hear my call, because Straeuli was supposed to pick up at that second to break.

"I think Bachop made the biggest mistake in his rugby career, because he was supposed to mark Joel. Defence on the left-hand side must always mark the flyhalf. He came to tap my pass and he didn't pick Joel up. I knew I had to get the pass away, and luckily I did. I got it under his hand and away, and Joel had all the time in the world to slot the kick because of Bachop's mistake."

But it was Van der Westhuizen's tackles on Lomu in that final for which he will forever be remembered. A colleague told me that in New Zealand, rugby coaches use the picture of Van der Westhuizen holding on grimly to Lomu's legs as an example to young players on how it should be done. He made more than one tackle on Lomu in that match, hitting the big fella hard when he could. Twenty years later, Lomu returned to South Africa to visit the land where he had made his name. He and Van der Westhuizen met up, both of them heading towards death with a bravery few could show. Van der Westhuizen's two children stood in awe when their dad showed them the picture of the giant their then-87kg father had tamed. Lomu died later that year. When he passed, Van der Westhuizen tweeted: "Difficult to write with eyes full of tears on my eye tracker. Thank you for EVERYTHING Jonah. RIP my dear friend!"

The 1995 World Cup victory was the best of times and the worst of times for Van der Westhuizen. The Pretoria man dealt with the fame of creating one of the great days in the history of a new and fragile democracy like a roller-coaster. He realised the good he had done, he felt the warmth, but becoming an idol made him "arrogant".

"It changed me as a person. In a good and a bad way. In a good way, where you care more for other people and I've got a thing where I say you have to go through a test to have a testimony. That was a test in a positive way. But, also what happened later, is that I started to become a person that I don't even know any more. I will call it arrogance. When you achieve, and achieve, and you don't know how to cope with that, and everything revolves around you, and that's when you make negative mistakes. That's what happened with me. I will never blame it on '95. I will only blame my own rugby career."

What happened later was that he married a pop singer, got caught in a sex tape scandal and then apologised. He lost almost everything - a career, a family, an image. Then came the news that he was dying. South Africans are forgiving of their superstars. Van der Westhuizen's "arrogance" turned to humility. He found a new path, a new struggle to fight. Pain was nothing new to him. He had played the 1995 final with two broken ribs. He had gone through the 1999 World Cup with ligaments that barely held him up. They gave him 24 months to live. He took more, much more. He gave as much as he had to give. The Irish team came out en masse to a dinner for him in Johannesburg last year. Not just one or two, but the whole squad. It was for Joost. Respect was shown.

South Africa will be in mourning this week. Not for a man who changed the way a scrumhalf should play. Not for a man who may just have been the most complete rugby player of his generation. Not just for the man who brought down Lomu, nor the man who passed the ball to Stransky. They will mourn for a man who reached the heights and then found humility. They will grieve for a man who showed this new and fragile and fractious democracy that we can be great. They will celebrate a man who remembered a knock-on, his one mistake at the time of his greatest glory. They will remember a South African who was flawed, magnificent and genius, and who gave them the most wonderful of moments in 1995.

Kevin McCallum was chief sports writer at the Johannesburg Star

News Corp Australia


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