JOHANNESBURG - Former South African rugby player Joost van der Westhuizen died on Monday, just short of his 46th birthday.
The J9 Foundation released a statement shortly after lunchtime confirming the rugby legend's death saying, "The family remain strong under the circumstances, however are devastated at the loss. This is a great loss to so many around the world and the family would like to extend their greatest gratitude for the love and support shown over this difficult time."
(See the statement at the end of this article)
The former Springbok No 9 had battled with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- the most severe form of the neurodegenerative illness called motor neuron disease (MND), for six years.
He was rushed to hospital in a critical condition on Saturday morning after being placed on oxygen on Friday.
Many sports commentators consider Van der Westhuizen the greatest scrumhalf ever to play for the Springboks.
As a scrumhalf for the Blue Bulls, he made his international debut in 1993 at the age of 24 and played for South Africa for the next decade, notching up a record 38 tries from 89 caps before retiring from rugby.
PICTURED: File: Joost van der Westhuizen clears the ball during the rugby test match between France and South-Africa, 10 November 2001. CREDIT: AFP / Olivier Morin
He still holds the record of being the scrumhalf with the most tries scored in Test rugby.
His participation in the 1995 Rugby World Cup – a sporting event of immense social and political significance for South Africa – ranks as his most momentous achievement.
A selection of amateur, internationally unknown players emerged from the ravages of apartheid with few expectations and went on to clinch rugby’s most coveted title, to the delight of a historically divided nation. The iconic image of Nelson Mandela dressed in a Springbok jersey presenting the William Webb Ellis Cup to the victorious team galvanised and united South Africa and sealed Van der Westuizen’s place in history.
PICTURED: File: Joost van der Westhuizen is chased by Australian number 8 Tim Gavin during the opening match of the Rugby World Cup 25 May 1995 in Cape Town. South Africa won 27-18. CREDIT: AFP / Vincent Amalvy
Controversy dogged Van der Westhuizen in 2009 and subsequent years when allegations of extramarital affairs and substance abuse surfaced in the media. The South African sporting hero’s image was tarnished severely and a bitter period of revelation and initial denial by Van der Westhuizen ensued. He later admitted to allegations levelled against him and publicly apologised for his series of indiscretions.
Aside from being a prolific try scorer he was also a dogged and fearless defender on the field – qualities he went on to exhibit further in his private life after he was diagnosed in 2010 with MND, a terminal condition for which there is no known cure.
The disease forced a rapid and devastating physical transition that left a fit and active sports star confined to a wheelchair, with the prediction that he had only two years to live.
Despite this, the father of two harnessed his mental fortitude and channelled his energy into setting up the J9 Foundation, a charity that strives to create awareness about MND while raising funds for sufferers.
Speaking to sports presenter Jim Rosenthal in 2011 Van der Westhuizen said of his approach to coping with MND: “Eighty percent of people only make two years and 20% make two years or longer. But when you do your research on the disease it’s actually quite simple. I turn it around. Don’t give me time, don’t give me a month - I want to know how much quality time I have to live.
“I don’t worry about quantity. I’d rather have a year of quality time than 10 years of being a sufferer.”
The man who began life as a farm boy from Pretoria lived 4 years beyond the time doctors had envisaged and continues to serve as an inspiration to those contending with MND and the sporting world alike.
He is survived by his parents Mariana and Gustav, estranged wife Amor Vittone, his children Kylie and Jordan, and brother Pieter.