They grew up a generation and a few kilometres apart‚ but Joost van der Westhuizen and Fourie du Preez are bound together through rugby and the passing of a torch.
Van der Westhuizen‚ who died on Monday at the age of 45 after a six-year struggle against motor neuron disease (MND)‚ was first Du Preez’s hero and later his mentor at the Blue Bulls.
The two are linked‚ not so much by a deep personal bond‚ but by their brilliance as scrumhalves for the Bulls and the Springboks. They were not great friends‚ due largely to their age difference‚ but there was a bond similar to one between a teacher and his best student.
Du Preez‚ who like Joost captained the Bulls and Springboks‚ knew he wanted to be a scrumhalf‚ because of Joost. His childhood Saturday afternoons at Loftus were about watching the Bulls‚ but more specifically studying Van der Westhuizen in full flow.
There was no better role model for an aspiring scrumhalf‚ and Du Preez only had to walk across the road from Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Affies) to see his idol. You can’t easily buy that kind of access.
Du Preez‚ even as a teenager‚ was astute enough to understand his good fortune at seeing one of the greats of the game at close range regularly. It was even better when Joost came down to the school and gave Du Preez his first one-on-one coaching lesson.
“My father always took me to Loftus when I was at school [in the late 1990s] and at the time Joost of course was the hero‚” Du Preez said.
“I wanted to play scrumhalf and Joost gave me my first personal scrumhalf coaching session when I was 13. That was when I met him for the first time‚ and that’s when I realised I wanted to play scrumhalf for the rest of my life.
“It was a very basic lesson‚ but one that has always stayed with me. He showed some basic principles of foot placement and hand positioning and now whenever I coach youngsters‚ I go back to what he taught me that day.”
After matric Du Preez found himself rubbing shoulders with the great scrumhalf as a newly-contracted Bulls junior player. Du Preez absorbed all he could from the master.
“After school I toured with the Bulls as a 19-year-old and Joost had a great influence on me there‚” Du Preez said.
“Later I played behind him during the 2002 Currie Cup‚ and was involved in two games when he was injured. He still stayed involved in the squad so I picked up a lot from him.
“The following year I was his understudy during Super Rugby. Those two seasons were great because I learnt so much from him towards the end of his career.”
Both were scrumhalf geniuses‚ but in slightly different ways. Van der Westhuizen was more athletic and attacking‚ Du Preez more tactical.
“I wanted to follow in his footsteps but I also knew that he was a different athlete to me‚ so I studied other scrumhalves and took the best out of their games and tried to copy that and create my own style‚” Du Preez said.
“But Joost was the benchmark‚ and whenever I was compared to Joost by someone‚ I took that as a huge compliment because he was the best of his era. But I never tried to play like him because he was unique.”
And did Joost’s legendary competitive streak rub off?
“I’m not sure you can learn to have the competitiveness Joost had‚ you’re either born with it or not‚” Du Preez‚ the ultimate competitor himself‚ said.