Springbok legend Joost Van der Westhuizen in fight for his life

Just 42, Van der Westhuizen's greatest battle now is not on the field against the likes of the All Blacks or Wallabies, but against a deadly disease

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 September, 2013, 3:00pm

The first time I ever saw Joost van der Westhuizen play was at Ellis Park in February 1992. It was my first view of rugby in South Africa and nothing was the same as the game I had left in Britain. Except the weather, that is. It poured with rain. From a scrum five metres out, Joost broke around the side, slipped, and aquaplaned over the line to score. There was a touch of Gareth Edwards about it and I made a mental note to keep an eye on this man.

Two years later I was with the real Gareth Edwards in Cardiff, discussing the imminent Springbok selection for a test against Wales. Incredible as it seems in retrospect, Springbok coach Kitch Christie was expected to pick Johan Roux at scrumhalf, due to his more reliable kicking game. Edwards scratched his head and looked quizzically into the middle distance. "He must be a hell of a player," he said, diplomatically.

In the event, Joost made the starting line-up, and his play over the next 12 months brooked no argument. He had springs in his heels, a dazzling turn of pace, magnificent defence and a nose for the try line. The one thing he never had was technique and as Kevin Putt, another of Joost's rivals for the Bok number nine jersey said: "He wasn't a scrumhalf's a***, but he was a hell of a rugby player."

Now in a wheelchair for most of the day, he is a pale shadow of the dynamic presence I first saw play 20 years ago

In 1995 Joost was a key member of the Springbok squad that won the World Cup. He was captain of the team who tried to defend the title in 1999. A couple of bad injuries had slowed him down, but the desire to win still burned bright in his green eyes. Having divorced his first wife, Marlene, he had been seen in the company of Afrikaans singer and entertainer Amor Vittone. When the pair got married it was South Africa's version of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.

Early in the new millennium, Joost got his pilot's licence and bought a helicopter. At the end of the 2003 season he retired from rugby and then moved seamlessly from player to pundit, commentating and presenting for Supersport, the South African satellite television station. Along the way Amor produced two children, but kept working.

It was not unusual for Joost to rush from the rugby ground after a commentary and join his wife on stage in time for the encores. From the outside they seemed to be the perfect couple, but there was a problem and the problem was cocaine.

In February 2009, a video emerged that was to change Joost's life. It featured an almost naked couple engaging in what Heat magazine called "sex-play" and snorting a white powder. Joost denied that the man in the video was him, but when Marilize van Emmenis identified herself as the blonde half of the combination he admitted the truth. It brought a swift end to his marriage with Amor, although the two have not formally divorced, and in June of the same year Joost was admitted to hospital with a suspected heart attack.

A battery of tests revealed nothing and a panic attack was suspected as the true cause, but in retrospect it may have been the very first manifestation of the illness that now threatens Joost's life.

2011 was another World Cup year and Supersport filmed a series of panel discussions with greats of the game, looking ahead to the tournament. Joost was part of the panel and while his answers were coherent, to those that knew him well there was something about his voice that seemed wrong. On May 12 that year Joost's publicist announced he was suffering from a muscle-related neural disease.

He flew to the United States for specialist advice and doctors at the Cleveland Clinic then revealed the gravity of the matter: Joost was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and had only an 80 per cent chance of living for two to five years.

A few months later I was master of ceremonies at a function honouring the recently retired Sharks captain Stefan Terblanche. Joost had been Terblanche's captain in his test debut against Ireland in 1998. It was a memorable debut too, with the winger scoring a hat-trick of tries.

Just before the proceedings got under way, the doors to the function room eased open and an entourage shuffled in. At its centre walked Joost. He sat down, signed a few autographs and just before the lights dimmed I asked him if he would like to say a few words, but would entirely understand if he would rather not.

He turned, smiled a lopsided grin and said: "No problem." Only then did I realise how badly his voice had deteriorated since I had last heard him on those panel discussions.

Too late to back out now, I thought, and at an appropriate moment, invited him on stage to talk about Terblanche. He walked slowly, but unaided, had a small problem with the steps, and accepted the microphone I offered him. Then he said: "One good thing about speaking like this is that everyone just assumes you're [drunk]."

It brought the house down and he held his audience spellbound for the five minutes his voice lasted. "I remember Stefan's first test very well," he said. "After he scored his second try I gathered the guys together and said, 'Ignore everything we practised. Just give the ball to number 14'." He was helped back to his table and, after a few more autographs and a sip of water, he was gone.

Two years have passed since that memorable evening and, sad to say, Joost's illness has taken a heavy toll. Now in a wheelchair for most of the day, he is a pale shadow of the dynamic presence I first saw play 20 years ago.

ALS is incurable, with symptoms including breathing difficulties, speech problems and paralysis. It is fatal in the majority of cases. But where there is life there is hope and Joost has spent the last two years raising money to help fellow sufferers and looking for a miracle cure.

The latest attempt has been with the help of Dr Anton Neethling, a Pretoria based "alternative" physician. Neethling specialises in bioelectromagnetics, a therapy that uses magnetic waves of low frequency to restore the body's equilibrium. Neethling says he uses a manual that lists the frequencies at which diseases "vibrate".

Speaking to You magazine, Neethling said he identified Joost's virus and destroyed it by connecting the patient to a frequency machine.

But mainstream scientists beg to differ. Dr Liesl Smit of Free State University says that there is no cure and even if the illness could be halted, the damage done is irreversible. She also points out that although the cause of ALS is not known, it's definitely not caused by a virus.

From Joost's perspective, however, there is still hope. For the last six months he has been followed by a television crew filming a documentary about him and when he spoke to The Guardian in September he claims to have been misquoted. "I'm on my deathbed," screamed the headline, but nothing could be further from the truth, apparently. He says: "I know I'm still going to live for a long time."

Meanwhile, he has mended his relationship with Amor and is seeing lots of their two children, Jordan and Kylie. The family holidayed together in Mauritius in August and Joost says: "My life is normal; my nervous system is normal; everything is normal."

Perhaps the problem the rest of the rugby-loving world has is that we just don't associate "normal" with Joost Heystek van der Westhuizen.

Andy Capostagno is a British sports writer and broadcaster based in South Africa

Proud Record

Date of birth: February 20, 1971

Place of birth: Pretoria, South Africa

Position: Scrumhalf

Club career

1993-2003: Blue Bulls (Currie Cup)

1996-2003: Bulls (Super Rugby)

Major honours: Currie Cup winner 1998 & 2002

International career

1993-2003: 89 caps (scored 190 points)

International debut: v Argentina, Buenos Aires, November 1993

Last match: v New Zealand, Melbourne, November 2003

Major honours: World Cup winner 1995; captain at 1999 World Cup; Tri-Nations winner 1998