Joost van der Westhuizen used to be the archetypal Springbok, the Afrikaner whose name became a standard for brilliance, absolute commitment and superior physicality.
Right now the 42-year-old ex-player is sitting on a wheelchair, has bad problems with his speech and barely has the force and strength to hold a sandwich or lift a glass of water.
In the past two years his muscles have been destroyed by the daunting effects of motor neurone disease, which has taken a hold of everything except his mind. That remains as brilliant as ever, but his body has become increasingly unwilling to listen to his commands, making his every day a difficult challenge.
Van der Westhuizen admits that he is on his “deathbed”, having been given between two and six years to live when he was diagnosed by his doctor in 2011.
Talking on his mobile from his house in South Africa, it is challenging to understand what the 1995 World Cup winner and holder of 89 Test caps is trying to tell us.
His talking is slurred and muffled for sure, but you can just about decrypt his sentences, so that we know the Springbok is at great peace with himself and the situation he is in.
“I realise every day could be my last,” he tells. “It’s been a rollercoaster from day one and I know I’m on a deathbed from now on.
“I’ve had my highs and I have had my lows, but no more. I’m a firm believer that there’s a bigger purpose in my life and I am very positive, very happy.”
Memories of his distinguished playing career are a source of comfort and satisfaction for Van der Westhuizen. The highlight was obviously 1995, when he was an integral part of the Springbok side that won the World Cup on home soil in front of new president Nelson Mandela.
His brilliant performance was characterised by a famous tackle on Jonah Lomu, when New Zealand’s talisman was going at full tilt after scything past South Africa’s captain Francois Pienaar.
He went on to win the Tri Nations in 1998 and captained the Boks at the 1999 World Cup, when they were beaten in extra time in the semi-finals by eventual winners Australia.
The only thing missing on his illustrious CV is victory over the British and Irish Lions. The Boks were favourites to beat the Lions in 1997 but lost the series 2-1. One of the iconic moments actually involved Van der Weshuizen, but not in a way he would have intended.
It occurred in the first Test, when he was one of the players who fell for an outrageous dummy by Matt Dawson, who then went over in the corner for a crucial try.
Despite his brilliant record, the former scrum-half is not afraid to laugh at himself, or show humility.
“Everyone still talks to me about that tackle on Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup final,” he says, “but every time people mention it, I have to remind them about how I fell for Matt Dawson’s dummy in 1997.”
That was a rare misjudgement from one of the best players of all time. The archetypal Springbok admits he made mistakes in his life after rugby, but is now finally at peace.
Thanks for the read and keep being awesome!