South African rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen dead at 45

Johannesburg (AFP) - South African legend Joost van der Westhuizen died on Monday aged 45 after a long battle with motor neurone disease, triggering a wave of tributes to one of rugby's greatest.

The former scrum-half, Springboks captain and 1995 World Cup winner was diagnosed with the condition in 2011 and his declining health had been closely followed by anguished fans around the world.

"It is with great sadness that we confirm the passing of Joost. He passed away in his home surrounded by his loved ones. He will be sorely missed," the J9 Foundation, which was set up in his name, said on its Facebook page.

Mark Alexander, president of SA Rugby, called van der Westhuizen "one of the best scrum-halves world rugby has ever seen".

"Joost will be remembered as one of the greatest Springboks -- not only of his generation, but of all time," Alexander said.

"He also became an inspiration and hero to many fellow sufferers of this terrible disease.

"We all marvelled at his bravery, his fortitude and his uncomplaining acceptance of this terrible burden."

President Jacob Zuma said that South Africa had "lost a legend and one of the best rugby players that the country has ever produced".

Joel Stransky, who hit the winning drop goal in extra time of the 1995 World Cup final, shared fond memories of his half-back partner.

"He's been such a big part for so many people's lives for such a long time. He fought so bravely," Stransky told Johannesburg-based 702 radio.

Ex-Springbok head coach Heyneke Meyer saluted van der Westhuizen's courage.

"There are so many things you can say about Joost but the one thing that I keep coming back to is that both as a player and person he was a warrior and a fighter.

"It was very sad to see him physically go backwards but he never lost that fighting spirit."

- Tragic decline -

On Saturday van der Westhuizen was described as "critical" after he was rushed to a Johannesburg hospital. He had complained about having breathing problems.

The incurable motor neurone disease, which damages parts of the nervous system, had left him frail and confined to a wheelchair -- a shadow of his athletic former self.

He had been given two to five years to live when he was diagnosed in 2011.

In 2015, a fragile van der Westhuizen joined fellow 1995 World Cup champions at Ellis Park Stadium for an event to commemorate 20 years of the team's historic victory.

Seated in a wheelchair, he posed for photographs with his former team-mates.

His doctor and friend Henry Kelbrick had told Rapport newspaper that the revered star had on Friday night prior to his hospitalisation complained that he was short of breath.

"His spirit never at any stage gave way to his illness," said Kelbrick.

"Joost already had all his affairs in order two years ago because the disease is so unpredictable."

The flamboyant player was dogged by cheating scandals during his heyday and was estranged from his singer wife Amor Vittone, although they remained together during his illness.

The couple had two children aged 10 and 12.

"I realise every day could be my last," he told the BBC in 2013.

He set up the J9 Foundation to promote awareness around motor neurone disease, using the number 9 from his shirt number.

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