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Joost's standing ovation

Wed, 27 Mar 2013 22:04
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It was an unbelievably emotional experience
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There were 40-odd Springbok captains on the stage, each one of them a legend in his own right. However, they all rose in unison to pay tribute to Joost van der Westhuizen.

The poignant moment came at the Waterfront in Cape Town on Wednesday, when the South African Rugby Union revealed their plans to open a major new museum - The Springbok Experience.

The launch was marked by the ceremonial capturing of the handprints of a glittering array of 43 national team captains - from all of SA's diverse traditions. The handprints will be cast into bronze and installed on public display as part of the Springbok Experience exhibition.

The large gathering of spectators all had their favourite captains, but the most stirring acclamation came when first Van der Westhuizen took to the stage and then later when it was his turn to eternalised his palm-prints.

The 42-year-old record-breaking former scrumhalf is battling Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neuron disease with symptoms including breathing difficulties, speech problems and paralysis, and is fatal in the majority of cases.

While he arrived in a wheelchair at the Waterfront, two of his former teammates - 1995 World Cup-wining captain Francois Pienaar and Gary Teichmann - went to his aid.

To everybody's amazement he insisted on walking, with some assistance, up the stairs to the podium and to his chair. He was greeted with rapturous applause from the crowd.

However, it was when he had to do his hand-print impression that the 40-odd other Test captains gave him a standing ovation and also brought the large crowd to their feet.

Pienaar, who captained the Boks to '95 World Cup title, with Van der Westhuizen a key member of the team, admitted it was sad to see the 89-Test Bok in such poor health.

"The people's appreciation for what he did on the field was clear, but there is also sympathy for what he is going through," Pienaar told this website in an interview.

"The biggest appreciation is for what he did on the rugby field, what he did in that No.9 jersey - I don't think there was anyone better."

Morné du Plessis, who captained the Boks to victory against the 1980 British and Irish Lions and was team manager of Pienaar's victorious '95 team, was also full of praise for Van der Westhuizen.

"I think it is important for him to know that people admire what he did to face this challenge," Du Plessis told this website, when asked about the decision of the other captains to give the Van der Westhuizen a standing ovation.

"It was quite emotional, the whole situation," Du Plessis added.

Jurie Roux, the CEO of the South African Rugby Union, described the event as an "unbelievably emotional experience".

"As we all know, his health is deteriorating, but he is an unbelievable person," Roux told this website.

"He doesn't say no for anything and it is a fitting way to give recognition to him as well," the SARU boss said, adding: "What better acknowledgment can there be than when all the other Bok captains stand up and cheer you on.

"I could see it was just as emotional for the people in the stands - everybody are happy that they had the opportunity to share the day with him."

Asked about Van der Westhuizen's decision to walk onto the stage, despite the obvious difficulties as a result of his deteriorating condition, Roux said it shows the character of the man.

"When the function was over I wanted to assist him, but he told me that he wants to stand up by himself, otherwise he gets 'lazy'.

"He is an unbelievable individual that is fighting every moment for everything he has."

By Jan de Koning

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