TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
HE was the scrumhalf who was too tall to be a scrumhalf, too flashy to play for a team as thuddingly conservative as Northern Transvaal, the team he played for all his non-Springbok rugby life, and too brilliant to be anything but bloody brilliant.
He was good-looking. He was a star whose celebrity leapt far beyond the touchlines. He was J9.
He was Joost van der Westhuizen, and the bag of bones his body had been ravaged to by motor neuron disease gave up its last tortured breath on Monday.
He was just 45.
Makes you want to swear at the gods and all they tell us is sacred and life itself, doesn’t it?
Van der Westhuizen played rugby with a wicked smile in his sidestep, a flashing twinkle in his dash through gaps that no-one else knew existed, a Scud missile of a tackle, and with a brain that always had a better idea.
In an era when rugby discovered that it could suffocate itself with ever more efficient defensive patters, Van der Westhuizen refused to be shackled.
His play was rudely alive with irrisistable outrageousness.
He made rugby make sense even for those who had never laid eyes on the game for men (and women) with oddly shaped balls.
That’s what greatness, true greatness, does: it communicates itself across all boundaries.
If Joost wasn’t playing, you kept one eye on the game and the other on something else. If he was playing, all five of your senses were focused on his every twitch.
Yes, you could smell his genius through your television.
Can you imagine how many days, weeks, months worth of sleep he cost the unfortunates who knew that, the next day, the other team’s scrumhalf was a smiling, twinkling, scudding, scheming force of nature?
Can you imagine what it felt like to be his No. 8 or his flyhalf, and know that you would have to scramble madly just measure up to immeasurable abilities?
Can you imagine what it must have been like to be him, and know that your very presence made those around you feel an extra prickle of pressure just because you were there?
Often it seemed as if not even Van der Westhuizen knew what he would do next.
Until he did it. Then it looked so obvious, so easy, so damned straightforward.
There were, as there must be with those who do not live life on a human scale, skeletons in his kitbag.
He was arrogance personified, they said.
He thought it beneath him to ride the team bus and preferred to travel alone, they said.
He was what in eras past would have been called an incorrigible ladies’ man, they said.
Of course he was. How could he not be?
All that lust for life and all that confidence and all that handsomeness had to out somehow.
Which is not to condone the less savoury aspects of Van der Westhuizen’s behaviour, but simply to add a shadow of human context to the way he took on the world.
Whatever else he was, he was Joost.