When Super Rugby’s first round starts in the last week of February it should be with a joyful and noisy standing ovation to his rugby playing legacy and his human fighting spirit.
Then take a minute to reflect and ensure that this fight is the symbolism of South Africa’s Super Rugby challenge and the Springboks’ return from the embarrassment of 2016.
Van der Westhuizen’s courage is defined in the Springbok code of honour, in which a player pledges to never surrender while having the privilege of wearing the Springbok jersey.
The Boks of 2016 betrayed their own code of conduct because of how they surrendered. Van der Westhuizen would rather have been buried before the end whistle than face the insult of surrender.
This is his legacy and this is what has to be honoured this season and beyond.
This year is about sacrifice for the jersey and for the game. It is about putting the game and the team ahead of any personal ambitions or agendas. This year has to be about integrity and fight. It has to be about respect and the right to be respected.
Don’t honour Van der Westhuizen with praise singing about his Springbok past. The honour is in the action of those who can influence the rise of Springbok and South African rugby. They owe it to this great rugby warrior.
They owe it to his legacy to ensure the rugby values he associated with the Springboks remain.
Van der Westhuizen had mongrel as a player, which was a gift. The complexity of his persona is he had mongrel as a human being, which wasn’t always a gift. He could win ugly on the field if he had to and, at times, this translated into his life post rugby. The details are irrelevant because no man, even those who live in isolation and without distraction, are without fault.
Joost’s fight is what defined his career and his life story. His brave and courageous tackle of Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup final was a sampling of how he tackled Motor Neuron Disease.
He knew he wouldn’t beat death but he was insistent he was never going to lose to the history of Motor Neuron Disease.
He was defiant that he turned one year of life into seven. He fought his own fight and won. As a player he would demand each of his team-mates wins his own individual battle. Do this and the team wins.
Joost’s legacy is not the statistical records of 89 Tests, 111 Springboks games, the 38 Test tries and the 100-plus matches for the Bulls. His legacy is the qualities that characterised his approach to the jersey.
‘Fok hulle …’ he is famously quoted as saying when told he would die.
Those who have shared a Bulls or Springbok change room would know exactly his look, his tone and mannerism when uttering those words because it was this defiance that added to his refusal to ever accept a losing situation.
His captaincy was primal. His play was instinctive. He led with his heart and led every battle from the front. He won 60 of his 89 Tests but defeat left an aftertaste more bitter than the sweet taste of success.
He hated losing and despised those who accepted losing. It wasn’t in his nature to come second or to celebrate coming second. He treated each Springbok match occasion as his first and potentially his last.
He never found a positive in losing.
His eyes could be a weapon of seduction or destruction. It depended on the occasion but in a rugby context those eyes danced in victory and cursed in defeat.
Van der Westhuizen, in his last months, used his eyes to communicate and a minute’s silence for him was surrender.
Don’t mourn him with silence and don’t anoint him with reverence and sainthoods. He’d be embarrassed at the lie of it all because he’d be the first to tell you he was as much a sinner as he was a saint.
His rugby is what put him on the back pages of newspapers and it was never his rugby that made him front page news.
His failings were human-like but his athletic ability on a rugby field seemed to come from a far more powerful place of origin.
He came from an era where his mindset was that the Springbok jersey was a privilege that could only be honoured if the wearer of that jersey refused to believe in defeat.
Van der Westhuizen this week will be honoured through words but the greatest tribute to him will be in how the Springboks in 2017 fight to honour his unwavering belief that to wear the Bok jersey is to never surrender.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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