Some people are struck first by his height, a touch over 6ft, which makes him unusually tall for a scrum-half. Many more by his eyes, a piercing blue, as deep and clear as the summer sky over his native Pretoria. Others are intimidated by his smile, a wolfish expression shot through with danger and a sure sign of impending retribution. And then there are the scowling one-liners that South African rugby folk, a harsh sporting breed, have come to know and love. "Once a Springbok, always a Springbok"; "I play to prove people wrong"; "When you're up there at the top, they try to pull you down - and when you're down, they step on you."
Joost van der Westhuizen, by common consent the outstanding Springbok of his generation and certainly the most revered by those who count themselves among his kind, is an unnerving character. He does not merely ooze intensity, he is ablaze with it. There is no more competitive player on the face of the earth - had Hercules himself been ordered to subdue Van der Westhuizen as one of his labours, he might have replied, "Hey, let's be a little realistic here" - and if England are to beat South Africa tomorrow, they will have to beat this bloke first.
It is easier said than done. In the 1999 World Cup, Van der Westhuizen played while injured; indeed, he limped through the tournament with only one of his knees in working order because the other was missing some ligaments. Yet he scored tries against Scotland and Uruguay in the pool stages and put another, crucial five-pointer past England in the knock-out stage. Then, in the semi-final, he produced one of great performances of his career against an infinitely more gifted Australian side. Largely as a result of his efforts, the Wallabies needed extra-time before getting the job done. Nothing France did in the final caused them nearly so much hassle.
He has 86 caps now - his first Test appearance, against Argentina in Buenos Aires, was a decade ago - and his scoring rate is close to a try every two games. He was a stand-out performer in 1995, when South Africa surfed a wave of Nelson Mandela-inspired passion to win the World Cup, and but for injury and the occasional argument with national coaches like Nick Mallett and Harry Viljoen - "I like to express myself through my rugby, not play to instruction" - he would have joined Jason Leonard as an international centurion. As it is, few expect him to remain available for Springbok selection after this tournament.
"I want to end my career as I started it, and I believe it is possible," the 32-year-old former captain said this week. "I've had my bad patches and there were times when I found it impossible to enjoy myself on the field, but I think now that I'm back to where I was between 1995 and 1998. The important thing to me is to meet my own standards; this is why I refused to give up when Viljoen didn't pick me in 2002. In a situation like that, you either let it happen or you don't. I decided that I still loved the game, and that therefore I would not allow it to happen to me."
There are those among the wider rugby public, and in some English-speaking corners of South African rugby too, who find it difficult to imagine Van der Westhuizen as a senior and wholly positive figure in the new, liberalised Springbok set-up. He is a fierce Afrikaner who has only ever played for the Blue Bulls, as the former Northern Transvaal provincial team was re-christened in the mid-1990s, and he speaks endlessly of the age-old Bokke spirit as forged by the Mosterts and Louws and Cravens of yesteryear, of the responsibility of the new breed in defending the legacy of the old. If there is an active Springbok more steeped in green-and-gold tradition, he is not to be found in this current squad.
Yet Van der Westhuizen appears happy to acknowledge the existence of a fresh set of sporting imperatives in his country, and says the right things in the right places - something of a relief, in light of the racism scandal involving his fellow Blue Bull, Geo Cronje, that flared shortly before this tournament. "I have spent the last six months in the company of 30 or 40 guys, and I know in my heart that there is no prejudice," he insisted. "I'm being honest here, because I know the truth. Maybe there are one or two individuals who find it difficult to accept the changes in our game, but that's their problem. And anyway, you have to remember that the recent criticism of us has come from one person who was out for himself. It hurts to hear and read all this stuff, but there is a bigger picture."
If that thinly veiled reference to Mark Keohane, the former Springbok media liaison manager who took allegations of racist behaviour to the South African Rugby Union, was as far as Van der Westhuizen was prepared to go in pointing a counter-accusatory finger, he was not exactly eager to contemplate the consequences of defeat this weekend, either. Asked whether the South African public would accept an English victory, the blue eyes burned with indignation.
"The public would not accept it," he replied. "But it is the same for the players. Defeat would be completely unacceptable to those of us who have worked so hard to get here. As Kitch Christie [the late coach of the 1995 team] used to say: 'When you are trying to reach your goal, there is a high road and a low road.' It would not be the end of the competition for us if England won, but we would have to take the low road. We will play to win this weekend, because that is what our tradition demands of us. It is a great honour to be part of Springbok history, and as long as we remember what we are and where we come from, we will be strong."Reuse content