10 February 2017

South Africa: Mourners Recall Rugby's Pioneering Van Der Westhuizen

Teammates from South Africa's 1995 World Cup winning squad carried the coffin of Joost van der Westhuizen into his memorial service on Friday. Van der Westhuizen, hailed as one of the greatest rugby players of the modern era, died on Monday at the age of 45, six years after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Francois Pienaar, the skipper of the trophy winning team, led the coffin-bearers at Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld stadium, where prolonged rounds of applause broke out to honour the celebrated scrum-half.

"Joost loved winning. He was the ultra-competitor," Pienaar told mourners.

"On the field he played like a rock star and off the field he partied like a rock star because he was after all a rock star. He was funny and naughty ... and always, always smiling."

Invented modern scrum-half

First capped by the Springboks in 1993, van der Westhuizen made 89 international appearances and scored 38 tries as scrum-half, a position that he is credited with transforming.

"I think Joost van der Westhuizen invented the modern scrum-half," said Bill Beaumont, chairman of World Rugby.

"Not only was he extremely determined, competitive and skilful, he set the benchmark for the modern player. He set the standard that everybody else followed."

Confined to wheelchair

Van der Westhuizen was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, which damages the nervous system, in 2011, gradually becoming confined to a wheelchair. In 2015, he joined fellow 1995 World Cup champions at Ellis Park Stadium for an event to commemorate 20 years since the team's historic victory.

He was renowned for his fearless tackles on Jonah Lomu in that game and setting up the Joel Stransky drop goal which won the cup for the Springboks, just one year after South Africa's first democratic elections.

Van der Westhuizen's wife, Amor Vittone, who supported him through his illness despite the couple being separated, paid an emotional tribute to the father of their two children.

"In the last seven years he fought so bravely with this awful, horrible disease," she said. "The main reason I think that he fought so hard was that he wanted to be there for his children."

Van der Westhuizen set up the J9 Foundation to promote awareness of motor neurone disease, using the number 9 from his shirt number.

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