Rugby World Cup
Joost van der Westhuizen: 'I only want to live, I only want my children to be happy'
Tom Hamilton
September 15, 2015
Joost van der Westhuizen at his home
Joost van der Westhuizen at his home© Gallo Images for ESPN

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- "If you don't believe in heroes, then you haven't met my dad," reads a sign on a wall of Joost van der Westhuizen's house. Next to it are three Springboks jerseys representing the trio of Rugby World Cups he played in. On the left of the trio is the shirt he wore in South Africa's victorious 1995 final. Alongside it is his shirt from the 1999 semifinal they lost to Australia and then the 2003 quarterfinal when they were beaten by New Zealand.

"Those will be my son's one day," the former scrum-half says, with his eyes flicking to the jerseys and then back. Even such a movement is a strain on a body that continues to fight second on second the debilitating motor neurone disease which has invaded his once-revered frame.

Van der Westhuizen had noticed weakness in right arm towards the end of 2008, and the confirmation came in 2011. Now the 44-year-old is confined to a wheelchair. Each word is an effort; with his speech slurred it is Pieter who interprets what his younger brother is saying. The small body sitting upright in the wheelchair belies the fearsome scrum-half he was, but there is still that glint of mischief in his eye. The eyes are as active as ever with that steely determination he possessed during his playing days now manifested through his efforts to continue living.

Standing alongside the three shirts is another imposing frame displaying memories from Joost's time as one of the world's finest scrum-halves. One of Nelson Mandela's famous silk shirts, signed by the great man, is at the centre of an arrangement recognising that momentous day at Ellis Park just over 20 years ago.

"It was awesome. But mostly people think it was a game, the cup -- but for us it was reaching the goal. We only did what we loved doing because back then it was amateur. We didn't know at all what it meant for South Africa."

His proudest moments in a Springboks jersey came when he sang the anthem. He smiles as he recalls it. On another panel opposite from the Mandela shirt are five shots showing the stages of Joost's tackle on Jonah Lomu, one of the iconic images of South African rugby. "I only did my job," Joost says of that tackle. "I think I fell, and he fell over me."

Jonah Lomu is tackled by Joost van der Westhuizen
Jonah Lomu is tackled by Joost van der Westhuizen© AP Photo/John Parkin

The image of Van der Westhuizen bringing down the bulldozing Kiwi who weighed in at 32kgs more than him was a wonderful metaphor for the country at the time, as Joost's 1995 team-mate Chester Williams remembered. "It showed what we can achieve -- if we stand together, we are a powerful nation," Williams said.

But that whole experience is now filed in a former life. "Rugby was the first half of my life; I'm playing the second half now," he says. "I have learnt more about life the last five years.

"I have changed from the human I was. I was arrogant when I was playing without knowing who I was."

Lomu visited his old friend earlier in the year. "When I saw him, I was coming close to tears," Lomu told ESPN. "He's a great man. I could see his mind is there 100 percent, but the body is not. To see him reduced to being in a wheelchair, that puts a perspective on life.

"It's fantastic to see the strength and will he has to live. You need that. Before I left him, I kissed him on the top of the head and said 'Love you, my friend, and keep on fighting.' He doesn't let it get him down. And that's what you learn through rugby and your team-mates. You never know that until all that you have is taken away from you. Both of us have that commonality."

© Gallo Images for ESPN

Van der Westhuizen's efforts are now focused on helping others struck by the cruel disease. He is sporting the shirt of his J9 Foundation, a charity to raise awareness of MND and offer help to those families affected by it. It started in 2011 with 78 families. Forty-two remain.

"If we don't have hope, we have nothing. And if you mean that to anyone then we are successful.

"What we are doing is only living our lives, and if we mean anything to anyone, it's awesome. We don't need to know what we mean to people; we are doing it because we love it. We don't mean anything in life if you're only talking and not doing anything about it.

"I know now for the first time how to invest our ideas to care for other people. When I was playing, everyone cared about me, including myself."

His daily routine starts with him taking his children to school. Alongside his foundation, they are his focus. "I'm living my life, I'm enjoying every moment of it. I only want to live, I only want my children to be happy."

The interview with Joost is coming to a close. The answers have each been succinct but poignant.

Joost van der Westhuizen at his home
Joost van der Westhuizen at his home© Gallo Images for ESPN

The attention shifts to the forthcoming World Cup. "We need Fourie du Preez," Joost says of his fellow member of the Springboks World Cup-winning No. 9 club. "He is still one of the best in the world. I think the team is awesome -- we have a good mix of experience and youth."

His boots from the World Cup final sit behind him, in gold plate. The spoils of his career cover the walls. He will be over to watch the Springboks in England; they will be the focus of his attention while they will look to him as a beacon of inspiration. The body may be weak; the mind is still as active as ever. The final question is: "Who's going to win the Rugby World Cup?"

A brief smile breaks out across his face and a look of mischief develops in his eyes. "Ask me an intelligent question."

Play ESPNfootytips Rugby World Cup Tipping

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

Live Sports

Communication error please reload the page.

  • Football

  • Cricket

  • Rugby

    • Days
    • Hrs
    • Mins
    • Secs

    F1 - Abu Dhabi GP

  • OtherLive >>

    Darts - Premier League
    Golf - Houston Open
    Snooker - China Open
    Tennis - Miami Open