Big Joe steadies Toulon ship

GARETH DUNCAN looks at the Saffas who impressed in Europe over the weekend.

Despite boasting a strong squad over the last three seasons, Toulon have been inconsistent in the French Top 14 as they’ve finished ninth (2008-09), fourth (2009-10) and eighth (2010-11). When they qualified for the semi-finals in 2010, they lost 35-29 against Clermont, despite having the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, Tana Umaga and Jonny Wilkinson on the field that day.

One player who has been a consistent performer throughout these disappointments is loose forward Joe van Niekerk, who has matured and developed impressively during his time in France. He was a star feature in that semi-final defeat two seasons ago, gaining 53m with ball in hand (the most by a Toulon player and a forward in the game). He also showed his all-round ability, making 11 tackles and winning three lineout feeds, including one from Clermont’s throw. Another key showing in that campaign was his battle against Perpignan No 8 Henry Tuilagi in an important 33-23 home win (see video clip) . Despite receiving some hard hits, Van Niekerk goes on to outshine the Samoan in their personal battle. [jwplayer mediaid="93403"]

Toulon had a poor Top 14 showing last season as Van Niekerk struggled with injury. He was sidelined following his first Test for the Springboks in over two years, when they beat Wales 34-31 in Cardiff. This was followed by then head coach Peter de Villiers’s comments that the European-based players ‘were off the pace’.

Van Niekerk had a nightmare start to the current season as he suffered a career-threatening lung injury when a player jumped on his back last September. After collapsing at training, he underwent surgery and was able to make his comeback late December. He has since returned to top form in 2012 and has captained Toulon to third place on the table so far, behind Toulouse and Clermont. His latest contribution was in the 19-19 away draw against reserve lock Gerhard Mostert’s Stade Francais on Saturday.

Toulon were trailing 19-12 in the dying seconds at the Stade de France, following scrumhalf Julien Dupuy’s 71st-minute penalty. Flanker Steffon Armitage then scored a last-minute try before inside centre Matt Giteau added the conversion to share the spoils. Van Niekerk was instrumental at No 8 on attack and defence, while lock Bakkies Botha also played the full 80 minutes to help secure the crucial draw in what will be a tough Top 14 challenge. Van Niekerk will be vital in Toulon’s pursuit for consistency and success.

In other results in France, wing Sam Gerber scored a late try to give Bayonne a 22-22 draw against flanker Gerhard Vosloo, tighthead prop Daniel Kotze and wing Brent Russell’s Clermont at the Stade Jean Dauger. Flyhalf Jacques Louis-Potgieter also added a drop goal for the hosts.

No 8 Jacques Cronje scored a try for flanker Bernard le Roux and lock Francois van der Merwe’s Racing Metro in their 33-22 win over Lyon. Scrumhalf Ricky Januarie also dotted down for the losers. Loosehead prop Daan Human and No 8 Shaun Sowerby helped Toulouse to a 21-10 home win over tighthead prop Gert Muller, reserve loose forward Adri Badenhorst and lock Dewald Senekal’s Agen.

Toulon captain Joe van Niekerk

In the English Premiership, director of rugby Gary Gold’s Newcastle Falcons picked up a crucial 19-10 win over London Irish as they battle to avoid relegation. Newcastle started fullback Greg Goosen and lock Adriaan Fondse, and went on to win despite Fondse’s red card for punching in the 59th minute.

Tighthead prop Brian Mujati started in Northampton Saints’ 24-17 win over the Sale Sharks. Scrumhalf Neil de Kock scored a try in Saracens’ home match against Leicester, but a late drop goal from fullback Geordan Murphy claimed a 20-19 win for the Tigers.

In the Pro 12, Robbie Diack crossed the chalk and Ruan Pienaar kicked three penalties in Ulster’s 21-14 loss to Cardiff Blues. Fullback Stefan Terblanche also started for the Northern Irish club. Front rowers BJ Botha and Wian du Preez helped Munster to a 35-14 win over flyhalf Willem de Waal and lock Corniel van Zyl’s Treviso.

Hooker Richardt Strauss and loosehead prop Heinke van der Merwe came off the bench for Leinster as they held on for a hard-fought 16-13 victory over Scarlets.