Rugby

My four favourite Joost Tests...

2017-02-07 10:59
Joost van der Westhuizen's famous tackle on Jonah Lomu in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - He was such a self-driven, hard-nosed and up-and-at-‘em sort of rugby player that narrowing down to a quartet some of the late Joost van der Westhuizen’s most dazzling Test matches for South Africa proved a formidable task.

Perhaps there were other games among his career 89 (78 of them starts) where he was more technically near-perfect at scrumhalf, or where his typically tigerish contribution made the key difference in a vital win against another superpower, but here is a purely personal choice – sparked in some instances by the tiniest of pleasant triggers in the brain -- of especially memorable Joost games in the green and gold.

South Africa 15 New Zealand 12 (Johannesburg, June 24, 1995)

As mentioned at some length in my Sport24 obituary piece on Monday, the almost unmatchable will to win that characterised so much of Van der Westhuizen’s career came home to roost in a critically decisive way in this unforgettable World Cup final at Ellis Park. It was his first-half, properly halting front-on tackle on the seemingly unstoppable, gargantuan wing phenomenon Jonah Lomu, during a threatening in-field break, that seemed to shatter the myth of invincibility by the young All Black No 11, and hugely fuel the collective gees of the Bok team that sun-soaked day. The scrumhalf (yes, not always the position you’d associate with the most muscular and hell-bent of defence) pulled off another two tackles on Lomu as the agonisingly tight showpiece ran its course. He also provided the suitably crisp late pass to Joel Stransky that resulted in the game-sealing dropped goal. Cometh the hour … Joost most certainly was right there, wasn’t he?    

Wales 20 South Africa 37 (Cardiff, December 15, 1996)

This encounter at the illustrious old Cardiff Arms Park saw Van der Westhuizen, perhaps at the very peak of his powers and before significant injuries progressively slowed him down, register his first of two Test-match hat-tricks in the try column – the other came very much later, against minnows Uruguay in a 72-6 Perth slaughter at the 2003 World Cup. But here he was at his lethal, predatory best and crossed the whitewash repeatedly in part due to his strength and determination but also because of his amazing eye for a gap or half-gap and then speed through it. The Boks notched five tries to one, and Chris Hewett of The Independent trumpeted that Van der Westhuizen “glided like a thoroughbred across the wide open spaces … Wales could barely lay a hand on the sleek athlete”.

South Africa 96 Wales 13 (Pretoria, June 27, 1998)

He seemed to enjoy these opponents, didn’t he? Admittedly this was a desperately one-sided match against a chaotic, badly injury-weakened Welsh outfit temporarily led by flank Kingsley Jones. But I was at Loftus for it, and vividly recall it as one of those fast, hard-pitch Highveld affairs Van der Westhuizen often so revelled in. He may only have notched one of the 15 Bok tries on a day described back in the valleys as “the darkest in Welsh rugby history”, but the scrumhalf was simply everywhere on his beloved Bulls home pitch, sparking raid after raid with his teasing, in-and-out, in-and-out solo raids through the middle with ball often nonchalantly waved around in one hand … and back-up runners coming gleefully to his linking assistance dime-a-dozen. The Boks were smack in the middle of that record run of 17 victories in Nick Mallett’s coaching tenure, and it showed. Joost’s hapless opposite number Paul John was in his seventh start. Oh, and his last …

South Africa 44 England 21 (Paris, October 24, 1999)

In his brief tenure (mostly at the 1999 World Cup) as national captain, Van der Westhuizen was always likely to lead by example. And that he undoubtedly did in a Stade de France quarter-final of the planet’s premier rugby tournament. The clash was much more nail-biting for long periods than the final score-line deceptively suggests. England, indeed, were leading 12-9 near half-time when a short-side try opportunity suddenly presented itself to the Boks: the No 9 was fed in narrow space by centre Pieter Muller five yards out on the left of the park. The odds favoured at least three nearby England defenders from thwarting him, but they reckoned without Van der Westhuizen’s bulldog tenacity as he somehow wiggled over, placing the ball one-handed in the very corner for what would become one of those epic sports photographs. In those pre-TMO days, only later did replays show that he was clearly in contact with the corner flag before dotting, but it was a momentum-shifting moment all the same. Joost’s service to No 10 that day can’t have been too shabby, either … it was also the match that marked a certain Jannie de Beer’s record five dropped goals.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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