South African rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen died on Monday aged 45 after a five-year battle with motor neurone disease, his charity foundation said.

“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 said on its Facebook page.

The former scrum-half, a Springboks captain who won the 1995 World Cup, was diagnosed with the condition in 2011. 

The rugby world was quick to express its condolences, with Irish great Brian O’Driscoll tweeting: “RIP Joost van der Westhuizen. An incredible player and fighter to the end.”

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 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 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.

“Whatever happens, 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. – Agence France-Presse

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