The world of rugby, players and fans alike, is saying goodbye to Joost van der Westhuizen, who died two days ago aged 45 of ALS or motor neurone disease.
ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) is in many ways the opposite of Alzheimer’s - instead of your brain giving up and stealing your memories and personality the nerves that trigger your muscles die which leads to an inability to move properly, then an inability to swallow, speak and finally to breath, which is what ultimately results in death. While this is tragic for every sufferer, old fogeys like me remember van der Westhuizen as a template for the big (he was 1m88 tall), fast scrum halves we see in the modern game (although there are exceptions who play right at the highest level, Aaron Smith is only 1m71 for example) and was the scrum half for the 1995 ‘Rainbow Nation’ side that won South Africa’s first RWC in front of Nelson Mandela after the repeal of apartheid. He used his name to raise awareness of ALS through the J9 foundation, a throwback to his old shirt number.
The sight and sound of him struggling to walk and talk as his ALS progressed was shocking because my memories of him are of him at his peak, as probably the best scrum half in the world for 4 years or more. It’s with memories of those times I’d like to leave you.
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