Tributes from far and wide continued to pour in on Monday for late South African rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen, who succumbed to motor neuron disease (MND) after a heroic battle he fought for more than five years.
As the news filtered through on Monday afternoon that the rugby captain was no more, South Africans quickly took to social media, offering messages of comfort and support to Van der Westhuizen’s friends and family.
Van Der Westhuizen, who died at age 45, once described first ever hearing the news that he had MND.
“It was a sunny afternoon in Johannesburg in March 2011. I was in the pool with a doctor friend of mine, playing games with my son,” he wrote on his J9 Foundation’s website.
“Dr Henry Kelbrick noticed that my right arm was lagging slightly and he asked me if I have experienced weakness in my arm. He also noticed that my speech was slurred and he decided to send me to a neurologist for tests.
“On my return after my test results, I was sitting in Dr Kelbrick’s office when he broke the horrific news of my diagnosis to me.
“I think it must have been one of the most difficult things for him to do. Being the optimist I am and not knowing what motor neuron disease is, I asked him to prescribe me medicine so that my life can continue. He replied: ‘I’m sorry my friend, this is a fatal disease and there is no cure.’
“And so the second half of my life started … this was the beginning of a whole new chapter in my life that forever changed the way I perceived and tackled life.”
Singer Amor Vittone, Van Der Westhuizen’s wife, in a touching message, said that he would always be her first love.
“It’s with a sad and heavy heart that we said farewell to Joost an hour ago. We’ve been embraced with friends and lots of love.
“Joost, rest in peace and know that Jordan and Kylie will always have you in their hearts. You are now with the angels and not in any pain.
“You are and always will be my first love. We love you.”
Van der Westhuizen was admitted to intensive care in a critical but stable condition on Saturday morning.
While the foundation had said he was “much better” on Sunday, he died at home after being released from hospital.
Tributes poured in from the sporting community, with SA Rugby Union president Mark Alexander calling him one of the greatest Springboks of all time.
“Joost epitomised what it meant to represent South Africa on the rugby field and always showed a remarkable fighting spirit throughout his career, but also in recent years during his illness,” Alexander said.
“He was a hero and a role model for so many young rugby players in the early years of professionalism and he taught a generation of South Africans what it meant to be a Springbok.
“His passion for his country and the Boks will always stand out and he will be sadly missed.”
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said Van der Westhuizen had made an “immense” contribution to SA rugby.
“We draw lessons from his fighting spirit, in both the field playing for our national team and against motor neuron disease,” Mbalula said. “South Africa is poorer without this great giant and warrior of South African
A former scrumhalf, van der Westhuizen scored 38 tries in 89 Tests for the Boks and held the national record for the most five-pointers for more than 13 years before it was broken by Bryan Habana in 2011.
His 10-year professional career included a Rugby World Cup title in 1995, a Tri-Nations crown in 1998 and two Currie Cup titles with the Blue Bulls in 1998 and 2002.
He was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame after retiring in 2003.