Joe big in London

MARK KEOHANE writes that Joe van Niekerk produced a man of the match performance to down London Irish in the European Cup.

Former Bok loose-forward Van Niekerk, captain of Toulon, showed exceptional pace to break the London Irish defence early in the first half and then was influential in setting up Toulon’s first and only try of the match.

Toulon won 19-13 with Jonny Wilkinson kicking five from five for 14 points, but it was Van Niekerk who towered above the rest in a match that started well but never sustained the first quarter intensity.

Once again there was inconsistency with referee interpretation at the breakdown, with Northern Hemisphere referees still favouring the defender at the breakdown. On several occasions the attacking player was not given that split second to place the ball.

Van Niekerk, who played for the Boks in the 34-31 victory against Wales in June this year, has consistently been Toulon’s best loose-forward over the last two seasons, and he looked every bit a 51-Test veteran in leading from the front against London Irish.

Van Niekerk has reinvented his game in France and despite only playing the one Test for South Africa since moving to Toulon three seasons ago he would not be out of place in any Bok set-up.

Away wins are rare in the European Cup Pool stages and Van Niekerk’s inspirational display has given Toulon hope of making it to the quarter-finals of Europe’s most glamorous club competition.

The performance was also a reminder of the quality of South African loose-forward playing outside South Africa. Toulouse’s Shaun Sowerby has been a similar influence in the Top 14 and European club competition, and had he not been capped for 10 minutes against Samoa in 2002 he would no doubt have played for France over the last three years.

BJ Botha and Ruan Pienaar produced strong displays in Ulster’s win against Bath, who have suffered without injured South African duo Butch James and Luke Watson.