Jubilant Joe’s big in Toulon

MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day, applauds the contribution of Joe van Niekerk in Toulon’s march towards European glory.

All hail the foreigners – and odd Frenchman – at Toulon. All hail Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw, two of the imposing forward figures in Toulon’s 16-15 European Cup final win against Clermont.

Mostly, all South Africans hail Joe van Niekerk.

Toulon’s club captain and second half replacement made the crucial tackle that led to the turnover from which Toulon scored the converted try that would give them a single point lead that would prove a point too much for their French rivals.

Friday’s Super Rugby was turgid. Saturday’s was far easier on the eye, with the Crusaders and Blues providing quality, the Tahs and Brumbies producing intensity and physicality and then two South African home wins in Pretoria and Bloemfontein ensuring the feel good factor.

The match I enjoyed the most was in Dublin where Botha played with the authority of a Test veteran and Rossouw showed there is still Big Game fuel in that big tank.

The moment I enjoyed the most was watching Van Niekerk, along with play-offs captain Jonny Wilkinson, lift the trophy as club champions of Europe.

Van Niekerk is 33 years old and is contracted to Toulon for another year. He is likely to finish then and unlikely to add to his 52 Springbok Test appearances, 34 of which he started.

Finally, though, he got reward for his undoubted talent, even if it wasn’t in the guise he would have envisaged more than a decade ago when he made his Test debut at Newlands against the All Blacks.

Van Niekerk was of that rare breed of player who played Test rugby before he had played a senior Currie Cup or Super Rugby match.

He was selected for the Boks after being named IRB u21 player of the tournament when the baby Boks finished eighth. That is how good he was in 2001.

He was even better at the 2003 World Cup before injury ended his tournament and while he won the Tri Nations with Jake White’s Boks in 2004 the years between 2005 and 2007 were among his most challenging because of injury. He battled for form in Cape Town and the Van Niekerk who wowed the Bok selectors in 2001 was more a memory than an on-field Stormers presence.

Injury threatened a premature end to a career that had stalled. Northampton cancelled Van Niekerk’s contract before he arrived because club officials feared he wouldn’t play a game because of injury.

Legalities followed and Toulon emerged as a club willing to invest in the talents of a player rated the best in South Africa at one time and capable of being among the best in France.

Van Niekerk prospered at Toulon like he never did in South Africa. He embraced the French culture and the locals embraced him.

His life thrived amid the adulation and affection of unconditional support in Toulon and his rugby was an extension of his life in the south of France.

When Van Niekerk arrived at Toulon the club was 14th in the Top 14 and many feared relegation. He played his first match as a replacement and then started 20 successive matches, in which he never missed a minute. He was voted French club rugby’s most valuable player in 2008 and 2009.

He settled into Toulon as if he’d been born a block away from the Felixe Mayol Stadium, was asked to captain a club side that over time would include many of the most celebrated Test stars of the last decade and he was at the heart of Toulon’s resurgence.

Toulon’s celebrated foreign international players, past and present in Sonny Bill Williams, Tana Umaga, George Smith, Matt Giteau and Steffon Armitage praised his influence and class as a player, person and a leader.

Van Niekerk, initially celebrated in South Africa and then condemned when his form and his body seemed to fail him, found his spiritual rugby home in the south of France.

His talent matured as did his personality. His rugby rocked.

There will always be the ignorant in South Africa who will fail to recognize his achievement at Toulon, simply because he didn’t do it for the Stormers or the Lions or the Cats.

Van Niekerk, South Africa’s under 18, under 19 and under 21 captain could never have imagined that his finest rugby moment would be shared with an Englishman who was the Springboks’ tormentor at the 2003 World Cup.

Van Niekerk, at the World Cup Group game against England in 2003 in Perth, had chased Wilkinson all evening. So too did Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw, but in the months of April and May the Bok trio had followed Wilkinson’s every step as disciples of the man and of Toulon rugby.

The man they hunted in Perth a decade ago is the man they protected in Dublin at the weekend. What a rugby story.

As for Van Niekerk, what reward!

I once wrote of Van Niekerk, during his struggles in 2007, that he was more Ordinary Joe than Big Joe, but today a more appropriate description would be Extraordinary Joe.

Just ask the rugby people of Toulon. Just ask Jonny Wilkinson. Just ask anyone in Toulon.