The 1995 World Cup final was the most momentous game in the history of rugby union, the match that helped unite Nelson Mandela’s new South Africa. At the heart of the Springboks’ 15-12 victory over the side many consider to be the greatest ever New Zealand team was the scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen. Van der Westhuizen is perhaps second only to Wales’s Gareth Edwards in the pantheon of leading scrum-halves.
Van der Westhuizen, who has died of motor neurone disease aged 45, gave the pass that June day in Johannesburg for Joel Stransky to kick his winning drop-goal in extra time. But it was his tackle on the fearsome Jonah Lomu, who was in full flight, that sticks in the memory and at the game’s final scrum close to the All Blacks’ try-line it was Van der Westhuizen who was helping push the New Zealand pack backwards as the seconds ticked away.
Van der Westhuizen was a very different scrum-half from Edwards. He was quick but, at 6ft 1in and over 14 stone, he was also supremely physical, in many ways a ninth forward. He was such a ferocious competitor that he played in the 1995 final with a broken rib after a tackle from France’s Abdelatif Benazzi in the semi-final in Durban a week earlier. The debate continues over whether that on-the-field daring contributed to the disease with which he was diagnosed in 2011.
Son of Mariana and Gustav, Joost was born in Pretoria and at school in Transvaal his exceptional athletic talent was obvious. After leaving the University of Pretoria, he joined a provincial team, the Blue Bulls, and soon began to attract the attention of the national selectors who were trying to build a side that would contest the first World Cup in which South Africa would compete after their isolation in the apartheid era, a World Cup on home soil.
He made his international debut against Argentina in Buenos Aires in 1993, but the following year was still struggling to establish his place in the side that would win the World Cup. When the Springboks travelled to Wales, Scotland and Ireland, there were many places still in the balance and Johan Roux was considered the country’s leading No 9. But Roux missed the tour through injury and the young man grasped his chance with both hands.
Van der Westhuizen scored two tries in a virtuoso performance to help defeat Scotland at Murrayfield and he never looked back. He went on to win 89 caps for the Springboks and score 190 points, including 38 tries, before he retired from international rugby in 2003 after competing in his third World Cup. When he left, no one had won as many Springbok caps.
Before illness struck, Van der Westhuizen was not universally popular in the game. He could come across as cold and aloof and he was not afraid to express his opinions about the crime wave in his country. Before he led South Africa in the 1999 World Cup in England and Wales, a tournament in which the Springboks were knocked out in the semi-finals by the eventual winners, Australia, he seriously considered a move to Bath. Instead he opted to stay in South Africa with the Blue Bulls.
Life began to unravel in 2009 when he suffered a suspected heart attack, after discovering a weakness in his right arm that he thought was an old rugby injury flaring up. In March 2009 he became embroiled in a sex-tape and cocaine scandal. The South African high jumper Charmaine Weavers claimed in a magazine interview that she had had an affair with him, and Van der Westhuizen’s marriage to the singer Amor Vittone fell apart. He then lost his job as a pundit for the South African broadcaster SuperSport. Van der Westhuizen, a committed Christian, was contrite, but the lurid headlines continued.
Two years later, he was diagnosed with a form of motor neurone disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and doctors said he had at best five years to live. From 2011 onwards, he worked with his friend, David Thorpe, for the J9 Foundation, a charity that raises awareness about the disease. Van der Westhuizen became a wheelchair user and struggled with his speech; he said that his main motivation for staying alive was to see his children, Jordan and Kylie, grow up. He moved back to live with his estranged wife.
Rather than stay at home in Johannesburg, he travelled in his wheelchair, often pushed by his brother, Peter. He received a standing ovation from the crowd at Ellis Park, the scene of his World Cup final triumph, when he visited in October 2014 and walked on to the pitch with the aid of a US military designed suit which transfers the weight of the body to the ground.
He is survived by his wife and children.
•Joost van der Westhuizen, rugby player, born 20 February 1971; died 6 February 2017