February 6, 2017 / 2:31 PM / 6 months ago

Obituary - Fierce competitor Van der Westhuizen loses his final battle

FILE PHOTO: South Africa's Joost van der Westhuizen trains in Melbourne during the 2003 Rugby World Cup, Melbourne, Australia, November 4, 2003.Mike Hutchings/File Photo

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South African World Cup winner Joost van der Westhuizen, counted among rugby’s greatest scrumhalves, died on Monday at the age of 45.

Van der Westhuizen was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in 2011 and given two-and-a-half years to live, but led a brave fight for not just his own life, but also greater awareness and understanding of the debilitating condition.

Much admired for his career as a rugby player, which included a winners medal in the 1995 World Cup, he was later vilified and finally feted in retirement.

Having admitted extra-marital affairs and drug use that for a time soured his popular image in the country, he would go on to create the J9 Foundation, a charitable organisation that he leaves as potentially his most important legacy.

“Life is not measured by the amount of years lived, but by the amount of memories created,” Van der Westhuizen said after his diagnosis.

And he made plenty of those for rugby fans around the world.

At 6-foot-1-inches (1.85 metres) tall and almost 90 kilograms (198 pounds) during his heyday, Van der Westhuizen was larger than the average scrumhalf, but also had great speed and a wicked side-step that helped him to score 38 tries in 89 tests for the Boks between 1993 and 2003, a record for the country that stood for 13 years before being surpassed by Bryan Habana.

He remains the most prolific scrumhalf in international rugby for his tries tally.

His ability to find gaps in opposition defence characterised his role in the team, not just as the link between forwards and backs, but as a potent attacking weapon and points machine.

His size and bravery made him unyielding defender too, with his most memorable tackle coming in a tense 1995 World Cup final in Johannesburg when rampaging giant New Zealand wing Jonah Lomu, who had burst through a number of Bok defenders already and looked certain to score, clashed head-on with Van der Westhuizen and was hauled to the ground in a display of courage that became folklore in South Africa.

The Boks won that final 15-12 in what was the defining moment of Van der Westhuizen’s career, and later led to a friendship with Lomu, who died from a heart attack related to his kidney disorder in November 2015.

"When he was on song he could flip a game and win it almost single-handedly. He was a magic player,” Justin Marshall, the rival All Black scrumhalf for much of Van der Westhuizen’s career, said in 2012.

Born in Pretoria, Van der Westhuizen played for his home Blue Bulls union from 1993 until his retirement a decade later, and also featured in the 1999 and 2003 World Cups.

He was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007 and at the time of his retirement was the most capped Bok of all time.

He went on to become a respected TV pundit but endured controversy in 2009 when he confirmed allegations of an extra-marital affair and drug use.

Van der Westhuizen married South African singer Amor Vittone in 2002, though the pair later separated after the allegations became public. He is survived by his son Jordan, 13 and daughter Kylie, 10.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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