On a sun-drenched afternoon at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University, Joost van der Westhuizen’s smile shone brightest.
Confined to a wheelchair, but his fighting spirit there for all to see, the former Springboks captain savoured the chance to meet the All Blacks on Tuesday (NZT Wednesday).
Preparations for this weekend’s test against the Springboks were briefly put aside as the All Blacks took time out from training to pay their respects to one of the world’s greatest halfbacks.
From 1993-2003, van der Westhuizen scored 38 tries through his potent running game in 89 tests for the Boks. He was a superstar of the South African and world game, only to be cruelly stuck down by a severe strain of motor neuron muscle disease after retirement.
The crippling illness, which essentially eats away at cells that control muscles, is slowly taking its toll on the now-43-year-old. Time is running out for the Boks’ great, who in 2011 was given between two and five years to live. He can no longer walk, bath, feed or dress himself.
Today, though, with 10-year-old son Jordan alongside, there was pride and hope in his eyes.
“I’m honoured to be invited by New Zealand,” he said through the translation of his brother, Pieter.
Midway through training the entire All Blacks squad jogged over to meet van der Westhuizen – posing for photos and touching him on the shoulder.
Skills coach Mick Byrne, who worked alongside the competitive No 9 with the Springboks in 2001, stayed longer and mentioned he had never beaten him at a game of golf.
Van der Westhuizen’s fondest rugby memory is beating the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup final – a victory which, to this day, is widely accepted as the breakthrough for his then racially divided country.
This weekend he will return to that venue and South Africa’s spiritual home of rugby to witness another brutal battle.
“Ellis Park has been especially good to us,” he said.
“Since 1995 we’ve been very privileged to win most of the games. There’s a special tradition between the two teams.”
Indeed, the fact the All Blacks agreed to the request from van der Westhuizen’s J9 Foundation, which helps other MND sufferers, for him to attend their tightly-policed training session highlights the unique relations between the two old rivals.
Last week in Buenos Aires the All Blacks decided not to allow Argentinean rugby legend Hugo Porta, the ambassador of the Laureus Foundation, into training for fears he could potentially leak information to the Pumas.
“His foundation approached us,” All Blacks manager Darren Shand explained.
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