A great rugby player, but an even greater man – that’s the general consensus throughout UAE rugby when asked about Garth van Niekerk, the Abu Dhabi Harlequins centre who died after a short battle with cancer early on Saturday.
Tributes poured in throughout the day on social media for Van Niekirk, 28, who had moved across the capital to Quins in the summer after two seasons with Saracens.
Van Niekerk, a flight paramedic with Abu Dhabi Aviation Search and Rescue (SAR), underwent medical tests in pre-season but was determined to play for Quins in their 36-32 Western Clubs Champions League triumph over Bahrain on September 8, despite being advised not to.
The South African was named man of the match in victory, before being told the devastating news that he had stage four colon cancer. Even though he underwent chemotherapy, he was recently told the cancer had spread to his liver and lungs and was given weeks to live. Van Niekerk flew back to his native Johannesburg around two weeks ago to be with his family.
Quins and Dubai Exiles, consisting of several former teammates at Sarries, paid tribute to Van Niekerk by wearing pink socks in Friday’s West Asia Premiership clash, before coming together for a photo after the final whistle that was to be sent to the family.
Coaches, chairmen and teammates all agreed that Van Niekerk was a talented player, but first and foremost he was a wonderful guy.
“It’s always the good ones. He’s a quality bloke on and off the pitch and it’s a big hit on the lads,” Quins coach Mike McFarlane said after Friday’s game.
“He was outstanding and I was very excited to get him in the team (this summer). We’re here to play rugby but we’re all mates.”
Quins held a fundraiser last week, attended by a flurry of people associated with the club, as well as rivals Sarries.
McFarlane added: “It typified what the club is about. We had 150/200 people there, probably three quarters of them didn’t know who Garth was, they just knew he was a Quins player and we all stick together. Hopefully what we’ve raised will make a massive impact for his family.”
Sarries chairman Jay Danielson recalls a guy who was an “absolute pleasure” to have around and a player so dedicated to his craft, he once turned up to an early morning beach training session still wearing his flight suit and helmet.
“He was a great ambassador for rugby in Abu Dhabi. He was a gentleman and a fantastic player,” said Danielson of Van Nikerk.
“It’s hard to know what to say when something happens this quickly. A great player but a great guy too.
“I was looking back at a photo today of maybe the second year he was with us. We had a beach training session in the morning and he turned up in his flight suit. He was determined to get to the early morning training session, he’d got dropped off by the helicopter and got straight into a cab and turned up still in his suit and helmet.
“He loved his rugby but was a great guy. On the field he was one of the fairest players around. I don’t think he gave away a penalty in the few years he was with us.
“He won Player of the Season in his first year, he was a weapon. Those trying to tackle him would have remembered the first time they got steamrollered. He wasn’t the biggest but he was hard to put down and ran beautiful lines.”
Van Niekerk had contacted Danielson upon his arrival in the UAE in April 2015 and had an immediate impact at Al Ghazal, named Sarries’ Player of the Season in his first year with the club.
“He called me one evening saying he’d found us on the web and got my number,” added Danielson, who believes Van Niekirk would have been pushing to make Apollo Perelini’s UAE squad for next year’s Asia Rugby Championship squad as he would have qualified in April.
“I explained how to get to Al Ghazal, he turned up, paid his subs and got straight into it, just a lovely guy to be around. He was an absolute pleasure to have around.
“Quins put on a great show the other week, well attended by Saracens and Quins alike. He’d obviously made a quick impression there too because he’d only played pre-season and one game, they thought he was a top bloke, which is testament to him.
“It’s a real loss for UAE rugby because he would have been eligible this year and I think you’d have been hard pressed to keep him out of the squad.”
The latest installment of the Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Dubai Exiles rivalry provided another classic encounter, even on a night when the game was probably at the back of most people’s minds.
It’s the fiercest rivalry in modern-day UAE rugby, yet somehow the malevolent feelings died down rather than rose up just after the final whistle sounded, as both teams came together on the halfway line for a photo.
Quins’ 33-month unbeaten record lives on but someone who won’t was at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.
“This is going to Garth’s family,” someone shouted. And despite having just gone to war on the field, Quins and Exiles players smiled and wrapped arms around one another.
The Garth in question is Quins’ South African centre Garth van Niekerk, who flew home to Johannesburg just over a week ago after being told he has weeks to live.
The 28-year-old received the news he had advanced stage colon cancer around eight weeks ago.
Van Niekerk, a flight paramedic with Abu Dhabi Aviation Search and Rescue (SAR), last played for Quins in their 36-32 Western Clubs Champions League win over Bahrain on September 8. He’d undergone tests but still played, earning the man of the match award, before being told the devastating news that it had spread to his liver and lungs the following day.
Despite having only moved to Quins in the summer from city rivals Saracens, the club said he’d made an instant impact.
“He’d had a massive impact since arriving. He was liked straight away,” said Quins coach Mike McFarlane.
“When things like this happen you realise there’s more important things than rugby, but at the same time playing a game and winning the way we did is the best way to honour him,” said Quins prop Craig Nutt, who knew Van Niekerk better than most having played with him at Sarries for nearly three years.
“He was always a competitive rugby player and he would have thrived being on the field today. He’s a magnificent man and that win’s for him.”
Van Niekerk had been in the UAE since early 2015, winning Sarries’ Player of the Season accolade that year. After receiving the news his parents, sister and brother-in-law had been visiting him in the UAE and accompanied him home around 10 days ago.
Despite the simmering nature of the rivaly between Exiles and Quins, the real ethos of rugby shone through as the entire Exiles side wore pink socks as a show of support for their hosts and Van Niekerk.
“We’re here to play rugby but we’re all mates,” added McFarlane.
“You saw Exiles wearing pink socks today and that just shows what UAE rugby is all about. When Canes came here they jumped in to help us too. It’s the same with Mikey Ballard, the rugby community does come out and support each other and it’s a great place to be.”
Several of the Exiles players know Van Niekerk well having also played with him at Sarries, including compatriots Jaen Botes, Lehan Koekemoer, Gio Fourie and Thinus Steyn.
And even though fly-half Durandt Gerber doesn’t know him well, he revealed everyone at the club wanted to show their support for their fellow player.
“It shows what the game of rugby is about. I don’t know him personally but when I heard about it, my heart felt for him because he’s a fellow rugby player,” said fellow South African Gerber.
“It just goes to show you never know when your last game is. He went to Bahrain and then a week later you can’t play rugby anymore. Rugby builds families and friendship and you have to enjoy it as much as you can for as long as you can.
“I don’t know him but I’ve played against him, and Jaen, Thinus and Kookies are all good mates. They told us the news last week so we wanted to do something. We got the socks and we’ll raffle them off for the boys and whatever money we get we’ll get it over to his family or the charity.”
Despite the terrible news underpinning the fixture, both sides put on a show befitting of the rivalry between the two, a game and result that would have pleased Van Niekerk immensely.
The hosts fell behind to an early Steyn score but led 19-12 at the break, thanks in large part to the flawless kicking of fly-half Luke Stevenson – who was 100 per cent from the tee.
Quins hit back after going behind with Nutt’s converted try leveling the scores before Stevenson took over.
Botes powered over for Exiles’ second score before the interval and scrum-half Carel Thomas darted over for number three just after the restart and Gerber’s conversion squared it at 19-19.
In a see-saw second half, Stevenson and Gerber exchanged penalties, Gerber’s second putting Exiles back in the lead at 25-22. Rapid Quins winger Barry Dwyer showed lightning reactions to snipe over from close range after a tip tackle on Stevenson, with the UAE international’s conversion sending Quins 29-25 ahead.
And the proud home record was kept in-tact when Exiles centre James Crossley knocked on in the final seconds, despite having a two man overlap.
Simon Zebo was omitted from the Irish squad for the upcoming Autumn internationals, just three days after Munster announced the winger-cum-fullback would be leaving the club at the end of the season.
The 27-year-old is expected to sign a lucrative deal at Racing 92, and with Ireland’s policy for not selecting overseas-based players, it is now unlikely he will feature at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
In light of Zebo’s omission, it presents a number of rising and in-form stars with an opportunity to step up and stake a claim for a spot in Joe Schmidt’s squad.
Although the likes of Rob and David Kearney and Keith Earls are already established stars who can play in the back three, here’s a look at five players we expect to shine in the build-up to the World Cup.
Who do you think deserves a chance in Schmidt’s team?
IRELAND CAPS: 4
PRO 14 STATS 2017/18: 2 tries in four matches
One of the most exciting names in Joe Schmidt’s squad, Carbery has been a totemic presence since his elevation to the Leinster starting 15 last season.
Made his first Irish cap when replacing Johnny Sexton with 22 minutes to go against the All Blacks last November, and has looked a class act since.
The New Zealand-born player is also an option at out-half, which makes his presence at 15 against the Springboks a little risky, especially with Ireland’s lack of options at 10 at present.
At 21, Carbery has buckets of potential, and hasn’t looked out of place at full-back for Leinster in Rob Kearney’s absence.
IRELAND CAPS: 2
PRO 14 STATS 2017/18: 4 tries in four matches
The emerging Ulsterman made a tonic start to his Ireland career in June and looks set for a starting berth in November.
The 21-year-old has been in scintillating form this season for Les Kiss’ side, scoring five tries in six games.
He was also the stand-out performer in recent wins over Connacht and Wasps, capping off both performances with superb tries.
At 6’5, he possesses pace, power, good defence and reliability under the high ball, and can act as an option for full-back, centre and wing.
On form he should be granted his place in the 22, although it is unlikely the Lisburn man will be presented with a starting place against South Africa. He should get the nod for Fiji or Argentina.
IRELAND CAPS: 3
PRO 14 STATS 2017/18: 1 try in seven matches
The Munster man has been primarily used on the wing during his time at Thomond Park, but is a rock solid presence at full-back.
One of the best in the business under the high ball, the 26-year-old has pace to burn, solid tackling ability, good positioning and is a lethal finisher.
Although he is ruled out for the Springboks clash due to a red card against Connacht, the Dublin man should be selected in the match day squads for Fiji and Argentina.
If Schmidt has one eye on the World Cup then he needs to give the industrious winger chances to continue developing his skills on the international stage.
IRELAND CAPS: 0
PRO 14 STATS 2017/18: 2 tries in five matches
Was unlucky not to be selected for Ireland’s summer tour after a stunning Pro 12 campaign last season.
The Munsterman is a towering presence at wing or fullback and has a penchant for scoring tries, with two already this season.
The 24-year-old may be uncapped but is starting to show signs of his class the longer he is in the professional game.
His voracious work-rate has makes him a key inclusion to any squad.
IRELAND CAPS: 6
PRO 14 STATS 2017/18: 3 tries in five matches
Produced a sensational performance against Munster on Friday to lay down a marker after his latest Irish snub.
The 26-year-old has electric pace, coupled with strong offloading capabilities and is a reliable option if Schmidt is short on back three players.
If an injury occurs over the next few weeks, except the Galway native to be called up.
He’s too good not to get another chance.