Freedom suits the Springbok

Steve Bale meets the South African scrum-half hailed as the world's best
Click to follow
The Independent Online
On Saturday week, the England Test and a momentous year's rugby safely behind him, Joost van der Westhuizen will cease to be South African rugby's - or perhaps that should be South Africa's - most eligible bachelor.

Lucky Marlene. When Van der Westhuizen marries his fiancee in Pretoria he might venture to hope he will also cease to be quite such public property. After Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar, South Africa's captain, he has the most conspicuously recognisable face in the land.

It is hard to imagine here, in a country where rugby is less than the sporting king, just what this recognition factor means in South Africa. "I cannot have a social life like a normal person, because I am recognised every single time I go out," he said. Will Carling aside, how many English players could say the same?

But it goes further than that. It is scarcely exaggerating to suggest that the Springboks' achievement in winning the World Cup has given them an almost god-like status in South Africa - which is both an extraordinary compliment and profoundly uncomfortable.

When they recently took themselves on a nationwide tour, there were times when the township people were so enthused that all they wanted was to reach out and touch them, as if by this means they could be imbued with some of the bottomless collective spirit from the World Cup that the Springboks were trying to revive.

At the heart of it all was Van der Westhuizen, by common consent already the world's greatest scrum-half, though at 24 he still has at least half of his career ahead of him. Yet the last time he started a match against England - on his home turf at Loftus Versfeld 18 months ago - things went so awry that he was promptly dropped.

The road from there to Saturday's Test before 74,000 at the new Twickenham has had its pitfalls, some - perhaps too many - to do with a feisty temperament, which he explains thus: "I am actually a very soft-headed guy. But when I get on the field I am a different person. I'm just a bag of adrenalin. On the field, good guys come second."

Here is insight of a sort into the intensity with which he applied himself to regaining the place that was lost. Van der Westhuizen was a Springbok tourist in Australia in 1993, but was not capped until the second Test in Argentina later that year, and when England played in Pretoria last year he was winning only his second cap.

As he tells it, he took the blame for something that was the fault of the coach, Ian McIntosh. "I played under orders and did my job," Van der Westhuizen said. "They told me you don't ever give a bad ball to the backs, so that's how I played and I lost my place."

England duly trounced South Africa 32-15, Van der Westhuizen was relegated to the bench and though his third cap arrived when he played 48 minutes of the Cape Town Test as a replacement wing, his frustration was exacerbated while all around people were celebrating the revenge of the Springboks' 27-9 victory. "I was very, very disappointed with being dropped," he said. "I spoke to the coach and all he said was sorry. But instead of allowing my disappointment to fester, I used it as a motivation."

It took a while: the sometime Harlequin Johan Roux remained in the team throughout the subsequent series in New Zealand, and it was only when McIntosh had been replaced as coach by Kitch Christie and injury had caused Roux to miss last autumn's tour of Wales and Scotland that Van der Westhuizen was restored as first choice.

In World Cup terms it was just in time - which is another way of saying the timing was perfect. Van der Westhuizen announced himself with a try against Cardiff in the opening match and went on to establish his formidable reputation in this part of the rugby world with two superb tries - one on the blind side, the other in the open - that helped sink Scotland.

"That was the tour when I was able to sharpen my rugby, to improve my game, and I would say that was down to the new coach. He gave me a much freer hand to do what I thought was best within the game plan, and if I went wrong he would tell me how and why and what I should do to put it right. Above all, he was willing to give me individual attention."

The fruits of Christie's personal tuition came in the World Cup, where Van der Westhuizen contributed as much as any individual to South Africa's triumph. Little wonder that amid the post-tournament turbulence, he should be such a popular target.

The advent of professionalism made rejection of Sydney Bulldogs' astonishing offer of up to pounds 500,000 to join them in the Australian Rugby League competition easier, but Van der Westhuizen makes his decision sound rather more than a straight comparison of financial alternatives.

"In South Africa rugby is everything, and since I was a little boy my greatest dream was to play for the Springboks," he said. "They did offer me a lot of money, but when it came down to it I just couldn't give it up. For me there is much more to life than money."

He is now handsomely paid by the South African Rugby Football Union, but even so will have this feeling thrillingly endorsed when he runs out at Twickenham - because, as he knows from the World Cup final, some feelings money cannot buy. And still more so, he will feel it when he is back home marrying Marlene.