Brendan Gallagher: Joost was a joy to watch and an utter nightmare to play against

Rarely, if ever, have the sporting gods given so abundantly before retracting their favours so suddenly and without sentiment.

To see Joost van der Westhuizen in full cry was to witness one of the greatest and most graceful athletes ever to take a rugby field with that ground-devouring stride that paved the way to 38 Test tries and a sinuous strength that belied his slim build. Eyes of a hawk and predatory instincts to match, he played on the edge on and off the field.

All of which made it desperately hard to meet him again in his wheelchair, his body ravaged by MND and his voice hoarse.  At least it was for the first five seconds or so until you realised the indomitable, warrior of recent yesteryear was still with us fighting against the odds and his eyes were still blazing defiance.

Undaunted and unbowed his spirit and defiance remained intact and his five year raging against the dying of the light turned into an unlikely but glorious celebration of life despite the unnerving close proximity of certain death.

A joy to watch and, as many have tesitifed, an utter nightmare to play against, Joost was no angel. Indeed my last cherished memory of him on a rugby pitch was when, a year after retirement and carrying all sorts of strapped up injuries, he went down with all guns blazing playing for the South Africa Vets against New Zealand  at the World Rugby Classic in Bermuda.

The All Blacks looked like they had been in camp for a week while the Boks appeared to have been on the lash for a similar period.

At one stage Joost was virtually taking on the old enemy single handed, trading snarls, insults and occasionally punches with all the forwards as well as making countless trademark breaks and tackles. I fancy it was the last time we saw him on a rugby field. It certainly had that feel as the Kiwis applauded him off.  They know the real deal when they encounter him.

What a player Joost was in his pomp, a period I would estimate as being between 1994 and 1999. Tall, very quick, sinuous and agile he was also maniacally competitive and fiery but possessed a native cunning that just about kept him the right side of the law.

The 1995 Boks were World Cup heroes to a man but Joost was the player that, when push came to shove, made the difference. It wouldn’t have occurred to Joost for a single second that the all-conquering All Blacks and Jonah Lomu, couldn’t be stopped in the final.

All the time Joost was fit and healthy there was hope, not that he was particularly fit and healthy in the final. He had taken a nasty straight arm tackle in the throat from Mike Umaga in the quarter-final against Samoa and damaged ribs against France in the semi-final. His answer was simply not to acknowledge the pain and discomfort. He would ‘overcome’ which was eerily prescient of latter events in his life.

My favourite Joost memory of all was when he took a notion to become a double World Cup winner and persuaded a few mates like Andre Snyman and Stephen Brink and young Bobby Skinstat, who was then making his way in the Western Province Second XV, to head for the World Sevens at Hong Kong where Fiji had mustered their strongest ever side. Mission Impossible.

None of this bothered Joost. He would be the skipper, playmaking genius, defensive organiser and speed merchant, sharing the latter role with the splendid Brink. All that he required from his Sevens virgins was that they run and tackle themselves stupid for 14 minutes in every game, 20 in the final. They met Fiji in the final and for the opening ten minutes Joost played like a man possessed, as Fiji threw everything at the Bok upstarts. One minute he would be making an 80 metre break, ten seconds later he was back making a try saving tackle. The tackling was brutal and would have resulted in a rash of red cards these days. He was on fire, the 40,000 crowd went mental.

Somehow the Boks reached half-time 12-0 up but Serevi, Bari, Vunibaka, Koroi, Erenenavula and co then got busy.  Vunibaka and Erenenavula swept in for glorious tries and the formidable Koroi added a brace but still the Boks weren’t finished.

Brink went in for a third and finally Joost, still chasing the dream, mounted one final lung bursting attack before being dragged down inches short. Nobody – victors or vanquished – could move for long minutes after the final whistle. As compelling a rugby spectacle as I have seen.

I saw Joost again two months later at a Boks training camp ahead of the 97 Lions tour.  I was last in a long line to interview the ‘demi-god’ of Boks rugby and, with all his colleagues back in their rooms showering and resting, I could sense the great man getting a little restless as I waited my turn.

My opening gambit had to be good so I chanced my arm and casually mentioned that the Sevens Final in Hong Kong had, without question, been the best game of rugby I had watched so far in 1997.

Those famous eyes looked up and grinned with pleasure. In no time he had called for pot of coffee and biscuits from a passing waiter and we were still there an hour later talking Sevens, Hong Kong, World Cup, Mandela, Blue Bulls – in fact every topic under the moon save the Lions tour.

Eventually, reluctantly, I had to make my excuses and drag myself away as deadline loomed.

Joost could, I’m reliably informed, be a difficult man, although I never experienced it. What was clear for all to see, however, was a rugby heart and soul as big as his beloved Loftus and a courage and passion for living that burned until his very last breath.

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