Joost van der Westhuizen 1971-2017: A hero twice over in one extraordinary life

— -- On the wall of Joost van der Westhuizen's house in Johannesburg, next to Springboks jerseys from the three World Cups he played in, is a small picture with the following message.

"If you don't believe in heroes, then you haven't met my dad."

In the green of South Africa, he was the heartbeat of their 1995 Rugby World Cup-winning side and continued at scrum-half in both the 1999 and 2003 tournaments. The signs of motor neurone disease began in 2008 when he noticed a weakness in his right arm. By 2011, confirmation came of the brutal illness which continued to eat away at his once sturdy frame until he passed away on Monday, aged 45, surrounded by his family.

Tributes are rightly pouring in for the most combative of scrum-halves, a man who rivalled the best No.9s of the professional era, but his legacy is now two-fold with the work of his J9 Foundation continuing. He embodied the rarest of traits -- a hero twice-over in his lifetime.

When I visited Joost in the summer of 2015, his speech was slurred with his younger brother Pieter interpreting for him in the interview. The small body sitting upright in the wheelchair belied the fearsome scrum-half he was, but there was still that glint of mischief. The eyes were as active as ever with that steely determination he possessed during his playing days manifested through his efforts to continue living.

As was the case with the late, great Jonah Lomu, on-field memories of former stars revolve around eye-catching, sport-defining moments. For Lomu, it was running over the spread-eagled Mike Catt in the 1995 World Cup. With Joost, it was his tackle on Lomu in the 1995 final.

"I only did my job," Joost said back in 2015. "I think I fell, and he fell over me."

The image of Van der Westhuizen bringing down the bulldozing Kiwi who weighed in at 32kgs more than him was a wonderful metaphor for the country at the time, as Joost's 1995 team-mate Chester Williams remembered: "It showed what we can achieve -- if we stand together, we are a powerful nation."

At scrum-half, he was the hero of many. He was a combative, fast-tongued, fiercely talented No.9 and for many of the current scrum-halves, they reference him as one of their early heroes. Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll said Joost was the "first of the new age nines" and comments from the South African's scrum-half peers support that.

Ex-Wales scrum-half Rob Howley said on Monday he was the greatest No.9 he faced while Matt Dawson, who played against Van der Westhuizen on the 1997 British & Irish Lions tour, said he was inspired "on and off the field" by his South African counterpart.

England coach Eddie Jones coached against teams including Van der Westhuizen and he paid tribute to him on Monday.

"I always remember the first game we played against them -- Brumbies v Bulls down in Whitbank I think it was, the middle of nowhere -- and he hadn't been playing and the Bulls had been on a bad run," Jones said. "We were looking to find some form. He played and they beat us easily. He was an influential player, dynamic leader of the team.

"He was a modern day half-back even back then -- big and fast, he could control a game. Joost was a great player. It's very sad for him and his family and obviously for South African rugby."

Van der Westhuizen won 89 caps for South Africa from 1993 to 2003, scoring 38 tries, in what was to prove the first section of his life.

After the 2011 diagnosis, a new chapter began and his focus was on helping others struck by MND. He started his J9 Foundation in 2011 and helped 78 families. When we spoke in 2015, the disease had taken its toll, leaving 42 families.

His message revolved around the multi-layered mission of bringing hope amid the darkness of the disease. "I know now for the first time how to invest our ideas to care for other people," he said. "When I was playing, everyone cared about me, including myself."

Lomu visited him in 2015. When the great All Black bid his final farewell to his old Springbok friend, he kissed him on top of the head and said, "Love you, my friend, and keep on fighting." They had talked about the transience, the unpredictability of life and the need to live and make the most of every moment. "You never know that until all that you have is taken away from you," Lomu said. "Both of us have that commonality." Both have now passed away, far too young.

Van der Westhuizen leaves his children Jordan and Kylie, his estranged wife Amor, and a legacy on two fronts: a great World Cup-winning scrum-half, but also a man who has inspired many in his brave fight against MND and the foundation in his name.