We all know the UAE as a transient place where people frequently come and go, but rugby in the Emirates is an eternal community.
And one particular group of players thrown together here have forged a lasting bond – one that will become even stronger after the death of one of them, Garth van Niekerk, this week.
Football may be referred to as the beautiful game, but the modern-day version has been made uglier by the petty tribalism, financial greed of the elite and eroding links of realism between passionate fans and increasingly indifferent players.
Rugby retains a pureness, where rival fans sit, unsegregated from one another at its biggest games and its stars don’t earn unfathomable sums of money.
News of Abu Dhabi Harlequins and former Abu Dhabi Saracens centre Van Niekerk’s death shocked the UAE rugby community.
The South African was a fiercely proud Sharks and Springbok supporter, but was able to realise a lifetime ambition earlier this year when he took a trip to Wales with Sarries team-mates Sean Stevens and Craig Nutt to watch Wales play Ireland in the Six Nations at the Millennium Stadium.
“That was one for him to tick off on the bucket list and something we’ll never forget. I think we’ll keep that memory with us and it will strengthen the bond between us,” said Sean Stevens, who along with Van Niekerk and Craig Nutt, moved across Abu Dhabi to Quins this summer.
Despite being a fellow South African, Bloemfontein native Stevens admitted he didn’t think much of his compatriot when they first met at Sarries training around April 2015.
Stevens, 28, felt perturbed by the fact Sarries had brought in another centre weeks after Stevens had arrived to replace the Quins-bound Pieter Morton.
“I joined the club a few weeks before him. I was going to replace Pieter but then he came in and was this big South African centre,” recalls centre/flanker Stevens.
“He was wearing a Sharks jersey and I’m a Cheetahs fan. I didn’t speak to him a lot the first few weeks. I thought ‘who is this guy, from Johannesburg, but who’s a Sharks fan’.
“But he slotted straight in and not even his rivals had a bad word to say about him. And he turned out to become one of my closest mates out here.
“A few of us at the club went on holiday together a few times and those are times we’ll always remember. We went to Bali for nine days last year and then to Wales to Nutty’s home town this year. We went to a Six Nations game at the Millenium Stadium, Ireland v Wales.”
The Millennium holds 74,500 and Wales games are littered with thousands of fans wearing inflatable daffodil headdresses. They may look daft but Nutt revealed wearing one and belting out the Welsh national anthem was something Van Nierkerk had long wanted to do.
“He always wanted to dress as a daffodil and sing the Welsh national anthem and he loved every minute of the trip,” said the 33-year-old prop, from Bargoed, 18 miles outside Cardiff.
“For the game to be so close and Wales to win was an unbelievable experience for the boys and Ireland always travel so well also.
“It was really good to get a South African’s perspective on our country and also for them not to be just in Cardiff, but to spend time in the Valleys was also really good.”
Social media has been awash this week with tributes to Van Niekerk, described as not only a great player, but a great guy. And despite only meeting most of his friends and family once on his visit to Wales, Nutt said his new pal left a lasting impression.
“I have had loads of messages from people that met Garth that weekend saying how much of a nice guy he was and sending condolences even though they only met him once, he left such an impression on them,” Nutt added.
Stevens and Nutt both featured in Quins’ 29-25 triumph over Exiles in the West Asia Premiership on Friday. A game usually filled with animosity saw both sets of players come together at the final whistle as they embraced for a joint photo that Nutt was sending to Van Niekerk’s family.
News of his death reached the players the following morning and Stevens revealed the previous night’s win had been a nice way to honour Van Niekerk.
“Everyone played for him and we wanted to go out and do our best,” said Stevens. “The game was a fitting tribute to him. A win is special against Exiles but even though the scoreboard has a loser, I think rugby won.”
The game was also poignant for Exiles, particularly a few of their former Sarries players who also knew Van Niekerk well.
Number 8 Jaen Botes described his fellow South African Van Niekerk, known to his friends as ‘Mamba’, as the same guy on and off the field.
“Garth was the type of guy who always introduced himself to people with a warm hand and a bright smile,” said the UAE international.
“He was a tremendous rugby player with a heart of a lion. I have never played with a centre that would run a hard line like he did. Every time we took to the field he always ensured that we had something to smile about. I’m sure those who knew him would agree.
“There was really no change in character on or off the field, he was pretty much the same guy. He did everything with a smile and full intention.
“The news about his illness was a shock to many and the fact that everything happened so quick just goes to show that you never know when it is your last.
“This is a tough one to swallow, however the friends and rugby community here in Dubai will cherish the memories we have of him and our condolences goes out to his family.”
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.