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Van der Westhuizen hailed for fighting spirit after death at age of 45

Joost van der Westhuizen has been hailed for adopting the same "warrior" spirit in his battle with motor neurone disease that lit up his glittering Springboks career.

The World Cup winner died at the age of 45, having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease back in 2011.

Former Springboks colleagues lined up to laud the 89-cap scrum-half for the grit shown facing his illness.

"Both as a player and person he was a warrior and a fighter," former Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer told Timeslive.co.za.

"He never lost that fighting spirit."

Van der Westhuizen became one of rugby's greatest scrum-halves in a 10-year Springboks career which began in 1993 and comprised 38 tries.

The gritty competitor proved central to the Springboks' 1995 World Cup triumph on home soil, with South Africa's Webb Ellis Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar declaring: "Joost was extraordinary on the field and then fought until the end."

A statement from his charity the J9 Foundation announced Van der Westhuizen's death on Monday.

"It is with great sadness that we confirm the passing of Joost," read the short statement, released on Facebook.

"He passed away in his home surrounded by his loved ones. He will be sorely missed."

Van der Westhuizen's former wife Amor Vittone offered her own tribute on Facebook, posting: "It is with sorrow and a heavy heart that we had to say farewell to Joost.

"We are surrounded by family, friends and lots of love. Joost, rest in peace.

"Jordan and Kylie will keep you in their hearts forever. You are up in heaven without any pain. You were and still are my first love. We love you."

Van der Westhuizen had set up the J9 Foundation to aid others suffering motor neurone disease.

Former Ireland star Brian O'Driscoll was among the first to offer condolences on social media, tweeting: "RIP Joost van der Westhuizen. An incredible player and fighter to the end. The first of the new age 9's".

Statements from his J9 Foundation on Saturday evening and Sunday morning revealed Van der Westhuizen had been in a "critical but stable" condition in an intensive care unit.

Sunday morning's update, though, added that he was "putting up an incredible fight" - and there was further encouragement later in the day.

A statement released around 5pm GMT on Sunday on the J9 Foundation's Facebook page read: "Joost has been much better today however he is tired and been resting this afternoon.

"Thank you for the continued support for him and his family."

England head coach Eddie Jones ranked Van der Westhuizen as among the game's best scrum-halves, saying: " He was an influential player, a dynamic leader of the team.

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

Van der Westhuizen starred in the Springboks' 15-12 World Cup final win over New Zealand in 1995, the victory that helped usher in an era of change for South Africa as a nation.

The scrum-half has remained famed ever since for a pivotal tackle on giant All Blacks wing Jonah Lomu - but even in reminiscing in 2013 he quickly downplayed his role.

Van der Westhuizen self-deprecatingly chose instead to highlight being caught out by the Matt Dawson dummy as the British and Irish Lions claimed a series victory in South Africa in 1997.

"Everyone still talks to me about that tackle on Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup final, but every time people mention it, I have to remind them about how I fell for Matt Dawson's dummy in 1997," he told the BBC.

Van der Westhuizen was hit by health scares and family strife in 2008, first suffering a suspected heart attack then becoming embroiled in a sex tape and cocaine scandal.

The former Blue Bulls star lost his job as a television pundit with South African broadcaster Supersport, and then his marriage to singer Vittone broke down.

"What I did went against all my principles - my life was controlled by my mind and I had to make my mistakes to realise what life is all about," he said.

"I led my life at a hundred miles an hour. I've learned that there are too many things that we take for granted in life and it's only when you lose them that you realise what it is all about."

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