Pretoria - An observation once made about Springbok legend Joost van der Westhuizen, who died at the age of 45 a few days ago, stands out for me. Someone said he had the eyes of a German U-boat captain.
Quite who said that escapes me – it could have been while the Boks were on a tour of the UK or New Zealand in the 1990s – but the point was that with Van der Westhuizen, the passion always showed in those blue-green eyes.
When motor neurone disease (MND) finally got the better of this warrior on Monday, people’s memories were of the expressive eyes that had become his only mode of communication, after illness had eaten away at his physical prowess, confined him to a wheelchair and affected his speech.
Like most of us, Van der Westhuizen was a walking contradiction.
As a 1.88m tall, 93kg scrumhalf, he cut a naturally imposing figure. The eyes played their part accordingly – they could be cold, piercing, dismissive, cutting, defiant, furious, sparkling – seductive even, when the occasion demanded. All in equal measure.
Sportswriter Edward Griffiths, who is also former chief executive of the then SA Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) and now boss of the UK rugby club Saracens, was also struck by the Van der Westhuizen gaze.
“There was always a kind of intensity about his eyes. They didn’t lie,” said Griffiths, who co-authored the book The Springbok Captains, in which Van der Westhuizen features.
“Whether it was disinterest, mischief or a sense of humour, [his look] was always so intense.”
Just how intimidating the look was shows in how people are unsure about whether the sports giant’s eyes were blue or green – presumably because nobody dared look into them long enough to find out.
Either way, they matched the uniforms of his two beloved teams: the Blue Bulls and the Boks.
He captained the Bulls to 1998 and 2002 Currie Cup victories and played a huge part in taking the Springboks to 1995 World Cup glory.
His adoration for the Boks was such that he would use his stare to stamp his identity as the team’s unofficial custodian.
“I remember that look well,” said former Bok captain John Smit.
“When we arrived at our first camp in Plettenberg Bay, he gave that stare to gauge whether we were there for the right reasons. He was a tough bastard and made us work for his respect. And once we passed the Joost test, those eyes softened on us.”
Griffiths recalls a story encapsulating how important playing for the Springboks was to Van der Westhuizen.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1995 World Cup, Bok players were, naturally, in demand. While on a call with Maurice Lindsay, the former chair of rugby league club Wigan Athletic, the super scrumhalf let Griffiths, who was wearing his Sarfu hat at the time, listen in on the money Wigan was offering: £80 000 (R1.3 million) a year for three years for his services.
“Joost wanted me to know what his value was, but also that he wasn’t going anywhere, because he played for the Boks for the love of it.”
The most significant thing about Van der Westhuizen as a scrumhalf was how his swashbuckling style inspired hero worship, as did his gutsy, single-minded determination to overcome every obstacle.
Despite his hunched-over style of play, he displayed grace, balance and electric pace off the mark. However, many people felt his size and pace equipped him better to play flank or wing.
But his type of heroics demanded that he play closer to the action at scrumhalf. As Kevin Putt, a one-time rival for the Bok number nine jersey, one said: “He’s not a scrumhalf’s arse, but he is an incredible rugby player.”
Van der Westhuizen was a patron saint of lost causes, a characteristic displayed from his school days. Playing for his unheralded Hoërskool FH Odendaal in Pretoria, he led the team to the final of the Administrator’s Cup in 1987, where they lost to future Bok team-mates Japie Mulder and Chris Rossouw’s school, Hugenote.
This would be a recurring theme throughout his career as he came to lead two underdog Bulls sides to their Currie Cup titles, made the first front tackle any of us had seen on giant All Black winger Johah Lomu, and defied numerous career-threatening injuries to enjoy an 11-year playing career.
“He was a hero of mine at school. I had a poster of him in my cubicle at Pretoria Boys High,” said Smit.
“When I first played for the Springboks I don’t know what I was more excited about: meeting him or putting on that green jersey.”
Tallying up the numbers, it is clear that Van der Westhuizen made a huge contribution to the sport.
He played 89 Tests, scored 38 tries – then a record number – and won 60 of the Bok games he played.
These numbers speak of his guts and tenacity (he effectively played the 1999 World Cup on one leg); of how he revolutionised the role of scrumhalf; and of how he despised losing.
If those achievements are impressive, consider the number six – the number of years Van der Westhuizen lived with MND. He defied doctors’ predictions that he had only a year to live.
At the time of his diagnosis, Van der Westhuizen said two things encapsulated who he really was. Firstly, he said: “They gave me a year to live, f*k hulle (f*ck them)”, and then: “You go through a lot of emotions and ask, ‘Why me?’ The real question is: ‘Why not you?’”
Van der Westhuizen experienced fame and fortune, as well as trials and tribulations, all in the harsh glare of the public. Admiration for his buff physique and hard-earned success turned to jeers when he was caught in a scandal, snorting cocaine with a stripper. Soon after he came clean about that, the disease struck. That was when Van der Westhuizen’s heroism was most apparent, and his eyes most expressive.
He cut a brave, humble figure who fought against the inevitable with humour and a rare lack of self-pity.
May his soul rest in peace.