[OPINION] Joost and the card that changed my life

I have Joost van der Westhuizen to thank for my addiction to rugby.

As a youngster, cricket was my first love, following the heroics of Kepler Wessels and his South African side at the 1992 World Cup Down Under.

I certainly enjoyed rugby, but it always took a backseat to the leather and willow.

That all changed one day when, on a whim, I bought a pack of rugby trading cards at the local CNA. Of the ten or so players that featured in the pack, one name stood out: Joost van der Westhuizen.

I’m still not sure why I had a particular affinity for the card. It was 1992, and Joost was practically unknown back then, paling in comparison to other illustrious names that were included in the pack, such as Wahl Bartmann and Theo van Rensburg.

However, Joost's was the card I treasured the most, and he became “my guy”. I began watching rugby far more intently, paying particular attention to the fortunes of Northern Transvaal, if only to see this rangy youngster with the shock of jet-black hair in action.

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He had only made his Currie Cup debut months earlier, yet within a year was representing South Africa on the Sevens stage.

In the same way that music fans like to claim indie bands as their own, having been devout followers long before they hit the big time, I told everyone within earshot that I had discovered Joost, having been a fan long before he had donned the Green and Gold.

I took it personally when he was criticised, which was rarely, while I also felt slighted when no-one acknowledged my contribution towards his success, which of course was less than zero.

It was obvious that he was destined for higher honours, and while it didn’t take long for the Bok coach at the time, Ian McIntosh, to select the scrum-half in his squad, he was forced to warm the bench for no less than five Tests without making it onto the field.

The man who had ownership of the number 9 jersey at the time was Robert du Preez, now coach of the Sharks and father of three of the most exciting prospects on the rugby scene in Robert, Jean-Luc and Daniel.

McIntosh’s continued refusal to start with Van der Westhuizen was my first introduction to acquiring feelings of complete and utter disdain for a coach.

I listened religiously to radio reports whenever the Springbok squad was announced, and I can remember the fury I felt whenever the words ‘Robert du Preez’ featured ahead of ‘Joost van der Westhuizen’, particularly before the third Test against the Wallabies in Sydney in 1993, which the Boks needed to win to capture the series, having lost the previous match in Brisbane.

Of course, McIntosh was completely within his rights to select Du Preez, who was a very good player and had by no means disgraced himself on the field, but my bias towards Joost knew no bounds. The Boks lost the final Test at the Sydney Football Stadium, and with it, the series, and there was a three-month wait ahead of the next Test against Argentina in Buenos Aires.

Once again, my radio crackled to life three days before the clash, but unlike the previous occasions, Joost’s name did feature in the starting line-up, along with, significantly, another new player in Ruben Kruger, a man whose life too would be cruelly shortened because of a debilitating disease.

I was understandably ecstatic about Van der Westhuizen’s inclusion, even more so when he went over for a try to help the Boks secure a hard-fought win over Argentina in his first-ever Test match, justifying both his selection and my continued ‘support’.

The try would be his first of 38, while he would go on to collect another 88 Test caps, his achievements during that time having been well documented, and practically unmatched.

I first met Van der Westhuizen in person just over a decade later, soon after he had hung up his boots. We met for a beer ahead of an event we were hosting together, and regrettably, I wore a pastel pink golf shirt I had bought in Thailand for the occasion. Joost arrived, shook my hand, and complimented me on my ‘Stormers supporters’ jersey.’ He always loved cracking a joke at the Cape side’s expense, but I was quick to remind him of it a few years later when his beloved Bulls became the first South African team to don pink on the rugby field. He admitted defeat, something he didn’t do often.

Former Bok lock Mark Andrews, who famously played eighth man in the 1995 World Cup Final against the All Blacks with Van der Westhuizen, described his old friend as a man who never liked to lose.

“If you were playing pool, he wanted to beat you. If you played table tennis, he wanted to beat you. He had an absolute passion for life. It got him into big kak sometimes, but he just had a zest for life on the field and off the field. It was tragic how a person who lived life to the fullest ended up with an illness that took that away from him.”

Former All Blacks scrum-half Mark Robinson, who played a number of matches against Van der Westhuizen, said that the South African was easily the best number 9 he ever faced.

“I was quite nervous when I first played against him, as I really wanted to have a great game. He was the benchmark for scrum-halves, and was what we measured ourselves against. During a scrum, the ball popped up on his side, and while he scooped it up, we had him completely covered. But then he put this weird looking chip over all of our heads, and the next thing he just scoots through all of us, picks up the ball on his boot laces, sidesteps the fullback to score under the posts. I remember thinking ‘How the hell did he do that with the most awkward unorthodox looking kick, when nothing was on?’"

Andrews said that no one valued the ethos of Springbok rugby more than Van der Westhuizen.

“Many people say that the current group of Springboks don’t understand what it means to be a Springbok and what it means to play for the jersey or die for the jersey. For Joost, playing for the Springboks was just one of the most important things in the world to him. He had an unquenchable fire to be a winner, and he was. “

He most certainly was.

Derek Alberts is a sports reporter at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @derekalberts1

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