In Depth

Tributes paid to rugby union's Joost van der Westhuizen

South African legend dies aged 45, following six-year battle with motor neurone disease

Joost van der Westhuizen, one of the greatest players in the history of rugby union, died on Monday afternoon after a six-year battle with motor neurone disease. He was 45.

The South African was admitted to hospital in Johannesburg on Saturday in a critical condition and on Monday afternoon it was confirmed by his J9 Foundation that he had died surrounded by his family.

"Joost will be remembered as one of the greatest Springboks – not only of his generation, but of all time," said South Africa Rugby president Mark Alexander.

"He also became an inspiration and hero to many fellow sufferers of this terrible disease as well as to those unaffected. We all marvelled at his bravery, his fortitude and his uncomplaining acceptance of this terrible burden."

Tributes poured in from former teammates and adversaries. Wales coach Rob Howley was a scrum-half in a similar mould to the South African star, and the pair played against each other on several occasions.

Describing Van der Westhuizen as "respected throughout the rugby world", Howley added: "I have been fortunate enough to play against him and enjoy his company off the pitch and it is tragic he has passed so young.

South African President Jacob Zuma said the nation "has lost a legend and one of the best rugby players that the country has ever produced".

He added: "On behalf of the government and the people of South Africa, our heartfelt condolences to Mr van der Westhuizen's family. May his soul rest in peace."

Van der Westhuizen had been tireless in his campaign to raise awareness of motor neurone disease, but it's as a brilliant rugby player that he will be remembered, known as a supremely gifted athlete and one of the most technically superb scrum-halves the sport has seen.

He was also a fierce competitor, best exemplified by the fearless tackle he made on the rampaging Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup Final in Johannesburg.

The giant New Zealander, who died last year aged 40, took the 1995 World Cup by storm, obliterating England in the semi-final with four unforgettably ferocious tries.

He was expected to do something similar to the Springboks at Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium, but when Lomu got the ball in his hands and powered towards the South Africa try-line, Van der Westhuizen brought him down with a textbook tackle.

It set the tone for the final, a match that South Africa won 15-12 in extra time, prompting a jig of delight from then-president Nelson Mandela.

Although that was undoubtedly the highlight of Van der Westhuizen's career, there were plenty of other exceptional moments in his 89 appearances for his country. In all he scored 38 tries between 1993 and 2003, and for four years he captained the Springboks.

The rugby world was shocked when Van der Westhuizen was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2011 and given between two to five years to live.

Determined to prove his doctors wrong, he established his J9 Foundation. "When something goes wrong in somebody's life they say: 'Why me?' It's actually quite simple, why not? Why not me? You have a choice," he said in an interview in 2015.

"Either you sit and home and deteriorate and die, or you stand up and you do what you love. Everybody's going to die somehow, and the moment I realised I had to find a positive. I have an opportunity to fix my life 100 per cent before I go."

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