Joost Van Der Westhuizen, South African Rugby Star, Dies at 45

  • Van der Westhuizen played in 89 international rugby tests
  • He was second-best try scorer in the history of the Springboks

Former South Africa rugby captain Joost van der Westhuizen, voted the world’s best scrum-half by PlanetRugby, has died. He was 45.

“It is with great sadness that we confirm the passing of Joost,” his J9 Foundation said in a post on its Facebook page. “He passed away in his home surrounded by his loved ones.” Van der Westhuizen, who played 89 times for the national team, known as the Springboks, was diagnosed with a form of motor neuron disease in 2011.

Joost van der Westhuizen in 2003.

Photographer: William West/AFP via Getty Images

Van der Westhuizen scored 38 tries in his international test rugby career, second behind Bryan Habana for South Africa, and played in three World Cups including in 1995, when South Africa won the competition. He was the seventh-highest point scorer in the history of South African rugby.

“Joost van der Westhuizen redefined the scrum-half’s role with his powerful bursts from both set-pieces and loose play,” the International Rugby Hall of Fame said on its website. Van der Westhuizen was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.

Six years ago, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after a New York Yankees player. It’s a degenerative disorder of the motor neurons, which control muscle activity such as speaking, swallowing, breathing and walking.

Van der Westhuizen was born in Pretoria on Feb. 20, 1971 and also led the Blue Bulls, his home team. A physical education graduate, he was a key member of the Springbok team that won the World Cup on home soil in 1995 -- a victory that was captured in the film Invictus about Nelson Mandela’s campaign to unite South Africa after decades of apartheid.

“On behalf of the Blue Bulls, we are absolutely saddened by the loss,” Shanil Mangaroo, head of communications and marketing at the Pretoria-based club, said by phone. South African President Jacob Zuma said in a statement Van der Westhuizen was one of the best rugby players the country had ever had.

The athlete quit professional rugby in 2003. Van der Westhuizen started the J9 Foundation, which raises funds and works with families affected by ALS, after being diagnosed with the disease. He had two children.

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