The easy part in life is to take the slap on the back and the compliment. The hardest is fronting up when expectations aren’t met. Where most fabricate excuses and pass the buck, Joe van Niekerk does neither.
He knows that by his own high standards, the 2005 Vodacom Super 12 has been a disappointment. Equally, he knows that the final two games of the season represent an opportunity for redemption.
‘I’ve been concentrating on forgetting what people have been saying, and just going for it,’ Van Niekerk says. ‘As my career has progressed, I’ve tried to keep the negative thoughts out of what I’m thinking.’
Like an injury to the body, negative press is debilitating to the confidence of any professional sportsman. Van Niekerk has suffered both this year, but his commitment to the Investec Stormers’ cause has remained throughout. Most fans will know that Van Niekerk’s comeback game against the Blues was his best of the season, few realise that he twisted his ankle just before half-time and played through the pain.
‘The important thing about playing well is the enjoyment factor. We lost against the Blues, but despite the result I really enjoyed myself. It was so good to be back on the park again and contributing, so when I got injured again, there was no way I was going off. I was so eager to jol, so keen to go.’
Bok coach Jake White values consistency in selection above most else, and thus Van Niekerk is sure of being the Bok No 8 again this year. Van Niekerk asserts that the relative lack of pressure in proving himself has not translated into a reduced effort in training and in the gym.
‘I’m always looking to perform to repay the trust that Jake puts in me. What he sees in me, I’ve got to express. I know it’s going to come because everything I’ve done has been totally committed. I know it will come.’
Like Van Niekerk, the Investec Stormers have not been able to realise their awesome potential thus far. They have beaten the Cats last Saturday, but now the Bulls at Loftus pose a huge challenge.
‘There is still a lot to play for,’ Van Niekerk confirms. ‘We haven’t done as well as we wanted, but the game against the Bulls is important. There are guys in the squad who want to play for the Boks, and we all want to maintain our record against the other South African teams.’
‘We’ve let the Stormers brand down this year, and the last game represent a chance to restore some pride.’ Like many others involved with the Cape side, van Niekerk is perplexed as to why the season has not met the pre-season expectation, but is adamant that reports of a fragmented squad are false.
‘It’s hard to pinpoint one par-ticular thing. In certain areas of our game we’ve been lacking, but the accusations that we’ve lacked team spirit are not true. We had a team dinner last week, and all the guys’ wives and girlfriends came along. Seeing the spirit everyone was in, it was hard to imagine that this side had lost six games. It’s amazing how upbeat the guys are, we have remained really positive and the team culture is excellent.’
The first 20 minutes against the Blues and the fight back against the Chiefs showed what the Investec Stormers are capable of, and Van Niekerk laments the failure to produce from kick-off to full-time whistle.
‘The one thing we haven’t had yet is a total performance. In fits and starts of like 20 minutes, we’ve shown what we can do. We need to deliver a total 80-minute game now, and it’s about maintaining composure.’
One of the positives to emerge from the campaign is the potential of the loose forward combination of Luke Watson, Schalk Burger and Van Niekerk. The understanding between the three improves with every game they play together, and Van Niekerk is excited about their continued maturing as a unit.
‘I definitely think our combination can work. I’m really excited about it. Sometimes things don’t go your way immediately, and at the beginning of the season there was a lot of hype and expectation around us loose forwards, and rightly so. Both the guys I play with are extremely talented, and they bring so much to the side. Unfortunately we haven’t completely gelled yet, but that takes time. When we do, it will be awesome.’
All three loosies have benefited from the input of coach Gert Smal, a distinguished former back rower himself. Van Niekerk is quick to credit Smal for developing his game, both at Vodacom Super 12 and Bok level.
‘Gert Smal is the best forwards coach in South Africa, and if you examine the pack’s performance over the season, you’ll see they haven’t done that badly as a unit. He knows what he’s talking about, and is technically very sound. It’s been a privilege working with him.’
Smal has never before lost to South African opposition in the Vodacom Super 12, a record his players are determined to preserve against the Bulls.
BY CHRIS HEWITT