Businessman Gavin Varejes, who heads the SA Rugby Legend Association, delivered a moving eulogy at the memorial service for South African legend Joost van der Westhuizen, who after a long battle, finally succumbed to motor neuron disease.
What does rugby mean to you?
Rugby isn't a sport, it's a brotherhood. It brings together different cultures, races and personalities with one common goal, to get a result after 80 minutes. For this, players sacrifice life and limb and in the process learn more about themselves and their darkest fears, like losing, facing a hostile crowd and disappointment in not only losing a tough game, but also letting your teammates and yourself down.
When and why did you set up the SA Rugby Legends?
The SA Rugby Legends Association was started in 2001 as an "old boys club" for provincial and professional players who still wanted to belong and give back to the game.
What did you hope to achieve with it?
The transition from professional rugby to life after rugby is brutal. If SARLA can make this process easier for ex-players and grow the base of rugby players at grassroots level, it is doing its job. We focus on rugby development and also the wellbeing of the ex-players after rugby.
Describe your relationship with Joost van der Westhuizen
Joost and I had a very open and honest relationship. He was the captain of the SA Rugby Legends and a hero in our country. He was also the tequila king! Off the field and after the party, we were helping transform his sporting skills to a business skill.
Joost was working at one of the companies in our group. In early 2011, I called him in and had concerns that he had been drinking because he was slurring his words and I noticed that his gait was unsteady. He was quite offended and assured me that he hadn't. I thought that he must've been partying too hard and it persisted. I think it really worried him as well.
And then, early in April 2011, he was told that he had 18 to 24 months to live. He was devastated and told me he had motor neuron disease and it was incurable. We cried together, he then got up and walked out. We never cried again together.
What and when was your first interaction with him?
The first time I met Joost, was a few years after the 1995 Rugby World Cup when I got the World Cup captains together, including David Kirk, Nick Farr Jones and Francois Pienaar in 1998. My initial motivation was to unite people and players through sport. Joost was one of the players who put his hand up to make a difference.
Describe Joost as a rugby player.
Joost was one of a kind and well ahead of his time. If you wanted to play against him, you had to play like him or you were lost. Eighty-nine test matches speaks for themselves and 38 tries, twice as many as the scrumhalf who scored the next highest number of tries, is an incredible feat.
Describe him as a rugby legend.
His never-say-die attitude could inspire not only a rugby team but a whole nation and gave many something to believe in the toughest of times, on and off the field.
Describe him as a friend.
Loyal, but also brutally honest at times and often turned this brutality on himself, facing and never cheating “the man in the mirror”. He lived and loved life to the max and had an infectious laugh. His glass was always full, half water, half air. You need both.
What did you learn from knowing Joost?
Never give up. In the darkest days and hours, Joost only wanted two things, to see his two incredible children and to make sure that J9 (his foundation) was doing what it could to help people with MND. He wanted to alert the world to the plight of these sufferers.
I learnt that even I don't know what a bad day is. Joost did. His body became his tomb. MND is in my opinion the worst disease in the world. The day you die, your brain is as alert as the day you get the disease.
I learned what real friendships, integrity, family and brotherhood meant. His family were absolutely epic. His brother Pieter put his life on hold and made the most selfless sacrifices for Joost. He became Joost's alter ego.
What can the Jewish world take from Joost?
Live every day as if it's your last, because one day you're going to be right. Don't sweat the small stuff and it's all small stuff. Surround yourself with positive, wonderful people. I know that Joost did.