Sevens legend Serevi’s poignant talk with Joost van der Westhuizen 20 years ago in Hong Kong
Fiji great Waisale Serevi pays tribute to South African World Cup winner Joost van der Westhuizen, who died of motor neurone disease in February
Perhaps there is no greater measure of the man than his humility in defeat 20 years ago at the Rugby Sevens World Cup in Hong Kong.
In a team featuring several of his 1995 Rugby World Cup-winning teammates, Joost Van der Westhuizen captained South Africa to the final.
They led 14-0 in the first half, but were defeated 24-21 after a Waisale Serevi-inspired comeback from Fiji. Such a blow might leave many feeling bitter.
“We were sitting after the final,” Serevi recalled, “and he said, ‘Serevi, congratulations. You really deserve it. You’re fitter and you guys are so fast.’
“I thanked him for his compliment. We watched them win the World Cup in 1995, we saw a lot of that team came to win. I told him that Fiji always supports South Africa and watches you guys, but that I think it’s fair they take the 15s World Cup and we take home the Sevens World Cup!” Serevi said with a hearty laugh.
“He said, ‘It was our goal to win the Sevens, but we can go home and be proud of ourselves because we lost to the best sevens team in the world, Fiji.’ He was great. Joost is truly missed by a lot of people, not only in South Africa but all over the world.”
Serevi won the plaudits as the player of the tournament, having scored 117 points including nine tries over the three days.
But Van der Westhuizen had been just as inspirational for his team, and enjoyed a titanic battle with Serevi in the final which formed a bond of mutual respect.
“I watched Joost, the person he is,” said Serevi. “Joost was a lionheart. He had power and he had speed, the first five or 10 metres, running at that speed. He could even play six or seven, because of his height. I really admired him as a player.”
Serevi reunited with Van der Westhuizen at the International Vets tournament at the Dubai Sevens in 2013 as part of the J9 Legends team.
Van der Westhuizen, who founded the side, was confined to a wheelchair but was pushed around for the whole three days by Serevi as the team vowed to win the title for him.
But they lost the final, and again the next year. So when the J9 Legends finally did win the title in December 2015, Serevi was moved to tears, with Van der Westhuizen unable to attend that year due to his worsening condition.
“The difference was, we were playing against teams, but we were a J9 family,” Serevi said at the time. “I have never been so proud in my life as I am winning this for Joost. I am so happy I have met Joost’s wish.”
Reflecting on their friendship now, Serevi again gets emotional.
“I met him a couple of times, I played and helped the awareness of the motor neuron disease,” said Serevi. “The thing I really admired about him was he would never talk about himself. He is an example of the core values of rugby.
“In rugby, we hit each other as hard as we can, but we are friends after that. When they come off the pitch, there are no heroes in rugby. When they come off the field, everybody is like another person.
“It goes back to what my dad said before my first game at the 1989 Hong Kong Sevens. He told me, ‘When you go as Waisale Serevi, make sure you come back as Waisale Serevi.’ It doesn’t change anything. You’re still the same person as everyone. You have to respect everyone.”
Just two months after his death, Van der Westhuizen will be fondly remembered by all connected with the game at the Hong Kong Sevens this year by fans, coaches, players, former teammates and opponents alike.
“A tribute doesn’t take long. Maybe one minute. I think he deserves it,” said Serevi. “He was part of World Cup Sevens history in Hong Kong in 1997. It should be a great way to say thank you. He was one of the great players in world rugby.”