Joost van der Westhuizen’s career as one of the Springboks’ finest scrumhalves perfectly illustrated South African rugby’s rough ride since international re-admission in 1992.
The 45-year-old, who on Monday lost a long and brave battle against motor neuron disease (MND), was a polarising figure.
His brilliance on the field helped unite a nation, especially after he supplied the snappy pass that led to Joel Stransky’s famous drop goal and 1995’s World Cup title.
Van der Westhuizen’s hardnosed, Afrikaner “Calvinistic” sense of determination was also valuable because it showed to the country’s new and broader rugby public that old-fashioned values also had their place in the modern era.
Yet that attitude also had its downside.
It meant Van der Westhuizen was considered part of the so-called old guard, who cherished “merit” selection over an ever-increasing transformation agenda.
In fact, the man who grew up humbly in East Lynne, Pretoria, actually did little to shed that perception.
Former Springbok communications manager Mark Keohane, in his book Springbok Rugby Uncovered, wrote how some black members of the squad were disappointed by Van der Westhuizen’s attitude.
Upon their selection for the side, he apparently told one player he had the “chance to make his people proud”.
The relevant player felt he wanted to make all South Africans proud, not just his own race group.
In his final season in 2003, Van der Westhuizen was accused of being sympathetic to Bulls teammate Geo Cronje’s plight following the unsavoury Quinton Davids racism scandal.
He also allegedly promoted provincialism before that year’s disastrous World Cup and was one of few who defended the infamous Kamp Staaldraad.
Life off the field was equally colourful.
Van der Westhuizen’s eventual admission in 2009 that he had snorted cocaine and was caught on tape engaging in sex play with a stripper was fodder for the gossip pages.
It led to his divorce from well-known celebrity Amor Vittone and an outpouring of schadenfreude from critics.
No one deserves Van der Westhuizen’s fate but his illness allowed him to repair a somewhat tarnished legacy.
The Springbok halfback was a magnificent player, one of the greatest attacking scumhalves of his generation.
89 Tests and 38 tries attest to that.
One of his greatest traits was his ability to balance loyalty with excellence.
Van der Westhuizen at least twice – in 1997 and 2000 – threatened to leave his beloved Loftus for greener pastures because of the Blue Bulls’ poor financial management and mediocre results.
But in the end, he stayed on and, in 2002, helped lay the foundation for the Bulls’ golden era under Heyneke Meyer.
True to self, Van der Westhuizen showed the same loyalty in the fight against MND.
That should be more than enough to atone for his shortcomings.