MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, watched a tribute to a legend of the game and felt only hope.
Joost van der Westhuizen does not like me and I’ve never liked him. But that’s pretty irrelevant to this column. I’ve always had the greatest respect for his ability as a rugby player and anyone who questions his pedigree as a player will be made to look foolish.
But I found the recent tribute dinner to Joost overwhelming and moving. I found him so likeable in the way he communicated and I found myself wishing for a miracle cure for his illness. I found myself inspired by a man’s refusal to accept that he is beaten and I found his humility in his darkest hour more glorious than any try he scored, any tackle he made and any match he won for the Springboks.
I’d heard about the evening the South African Rugby Legends Association had arranged to celebrate the life of Joost and I had been told it was something special. Then I found myself flicking through channels on a Sunday afternoon and there was Joost and his 1995 World Cup-winning team-mate Joel Stransky in conversation. I turned up the volume and never turned it down.
I saw a man robbed of his most incredible athletic powers, but it seemed secondary to the remarkable emotional presence when he smiled, laughed, spoke and battled to keep the tears at a safe distance.
So many people had come to see him. To say thank you and good luck. They came to salute a rugby player and they left applauding a man, whose legacy will not be what he did in 89 Tests but what he will do with how many days he has left. What that number is no one knows, but already Joost, with the J9 Foundation and the considerable benevolence of South African businessman Gavin Verajas, has improved the quality of life among those suffering a similar fate of motor neuron disease.
The accusation against Joost as a player was that he took, and took too much for granted. It is common among the world’s finest athletes … those given the physical powers rarely think about the privilege. Often the mind stagnates because it is rarely called on to negotiate a hurdle.
All Joost has now is his mind and the more he spoke the less I seemed to care that the speech was slurred and that this man of just 40 years old was among the most feared players less than a decade ago.
I professionally knew a player who took and now I was watching a man who gave … from his heart. It wasn’t the gifts he handed out or the many people he thanked. It was the joy he seemed to get out of knowing he could influence the quality of life among what he called his new team-mates – those hit by motor neuron disease, a condition for which there is no explanation and no cure.
‘It is not how long you have but the quality of those days,’ he said during the evening. ‘Initially I asked “why me” and then I asked “why not me?”’
I thought I would feel pity but never have I been so wrong. I saw someone who reminded me that we breathe to live and not to suffocate, and that if we give of ourselves, so do others.
The entire evening also emphasised why rugby is unique and why the traditions among players must be promoted and not buried in the avalanche of cash.
Joost’s two greatest rivals George Gregan and Justin Marshall sat next to him and said they’d be there for him in every way needed. They once were gladiators who only knew each other through combat. Now they were men determined to leave a legacy greater than a rugby memory.
There were so many lessons for the younger players, but it would be ridiculous to think they could have the emotional appreciation just yet, but to the game’s custodians there is no such excuse of youth and naivety.
An environment has to be created for players to mingle after battle and the ceremonial pomp associated with these gatherings should never diminish.
It is why I will always want to see the Barbarians play, but for God’s sake create a situation designed for success and not the hopeless failure we saw against Australia at Twickenham. Percy Montgomery played against Gregan for 10 years and never exchanged a word with him outside the game. He tells me they spent a week together with the Barbarians and it was fabulous. So too so many other players.
The South African Rugby Legends Association has no equal in rugby union. It helps that the man who financially gives so much is so in love with the game, but the cash contributions of Verajas could not survive without the intent and goodwill of former Boks like John Allan. Get these men of substance involved with the professional game so that it is a game that gives more than it takes.
Rugby, so powerful in creating opportunity and so cruel in crushing hope, is so much more than a World Cup-winning result.
It shouldn’t take tragedy to force a rethink in how we view the game, its traditions and most importantly its players.
I watched a tribute to a legend of the game and when I thought I’d feel despair I felt only hope.
Hopefully those entrusted as custodians of South African rugby felt a similar desire to give and not take.
– This column appears in the January issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, on sale now at selected retailers.