The hunt for red October

Swashbuckling captain Joe Van Niekerk tells Ian Moriarty that the French side are determined to put their best foot forward for the Heineken Cup.

ONE OF the more bizarre yet intriguing aspects of the Heineken Cup over the years has been the ambivalent relationship between the tournament and the French sides. Despite providing more Heineken champions than any other country, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world’s premier club competition has been, at times, a bit of an unwanted distraction from the 119-year-old French Championship.

Current champions Toulouse are the exception that proves the rule, while Biarritz and Brive back in the ‘90s have flown the tricolour on occasion. But there’s been an inescapable feeling that for the French clubs, the Heineken Cup has too often played the role of the housewife in denial while the love affair with the Top 14 continues.

Joe Van Niekerk thinks that this is changing fast. Van Niekerk opens his and Toulon’s Heineken account tomorrow when the French side welcome the Ospreys to the hostile surrounds of Stade Felix Mayol. To put it bluntly, the Toulon captain can’t wait to start a tournament he rates as Europe’s finest.

“I’ve always watched the Heineken Cup, even when I was playing back home in South Africa,” says Van Niekerk. “The standard is great. If you’re playing in the European rugby scene, it’s the biggest thing that you could challenge for. You want to be playing the big matches against the likes of Munster and the Ospreys. Those are the games that you cherish and savour.”

The 30-year-old Springbok was one of Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal’s first buys when they were promoted to the Top 14 in 2008. Christened the ‘Manchester City’ of European club rugby by London Irish coach Toby Booth, Toulon’s arrival at the top table has been long awaited. A club with a distinguished history in the amateur era, Toulon have come to represent the changing and sometimes negative face of professional rugby in recent years. Bankrolled by Boudjellal’s millions, that first season in the Top 14 saw them just avoid relegation despite some big-name signings, lending credence to the notion that there were too many mercenaries at the club and not enough passion in the shirt. Yet everything changed last year. Armed with a new coach in Philippe Saint-André and the metronomic boot of a rejuvenated Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon finished second in the Top 14, losing to Perpignan in the play-offs. Despite a few surprising home defeats at the start of the season, it’s been more of the same this year, giving Van Niekerk the belief that they can make a dent in the Heineken Cup from the off.

“Our first game against the Ospreys will be very important and I think if we can pull off something there we can get a bit of a run in the competition. I would look at the two competitions as two separate things but you need to have a strong group of players to do that.”

Much of that will depend on how Toulon manage what is expected to be a gruelling four weeks for the players. With key Top 14 clashes against Stade Francais, Toulouse and Perpignan to come in addition to the Heineken showdowns with the Ospreys and Munster, the local media have christened the schedule “the hunt for Red October”. However, Van Niekerk rejects the notion that they may have to field weaker sides for their away trips. A key difference to last season, he says, is that this Toulon squad has been built to cope with both competitions.

“The summer signings have allowed us deal with injuries a little better and there’s a sense that we have real depth now. I also think what we’re seeing now are the results of a lot of hard work and being together for more than a season. The cohesion is a lot better than it was last year.”

Signing a string of world-class players helps too and it says something of the squad that Philippe Saint André has built that he can substitute All Black prop Carl Hayman after 60 minutes and bring on the likes of Georgian Davit Kubriashvilli. Former Leinster fly-half Felipe Contepomi has settled in well after missing much of last season with injury but Van Niekerk saves a special word for his Australian back-row colleague George Smith.

“The guy is amazing,” he says. “He’s a pretty quiet guy but his influence is growing by the day. He just puts his head down and gives 120%. You want to play with guys like that.”

They may be littered with experienced winners on the pitch yet the fact remains that Toulon have had little exposure to top-class European rugby. They made it to the Amlin Challenge Cup final last year, only to lose to the Cardiff Blues in Marseille. For Van Niekerk, it’s one of the things that makes the fixtures against Munster such a challenge.

“It would be a big positive if we did have the experience of Munster. Collectively, we do have experience though. We have world cup winners; we’ve got guys who’ve won tri-nations and guys who’ve won competitions around the world. So if we can bring all of that together at the right time, we’ll be happy. I’m not worried about the challenge ahead.”

And what a challenge it promises to be. With a nod towards Leinster’s pool, it’s hard to imagine a tougher pool than the one that Toulon and Munster find themselves in. Van Niekerk is wary of the Ospreys and has been watching London Irish with interest but it is Tony McGahan’s men that he believes will be the toughest challenge. Would he have preferred an easier baptism?

He smiles. “It’s really not an easy group. Munster have won a few finals and have been at a few more. I would say that’ll be our toughest match. But the first match against the Ospreys remains really important too. If we can win that one, we can build some confidence. There’s plenty of confidence in the team anyway when you look at the players we have. We just have to be prepared to go after the points when they come our way.”

With 18 months left on his contract, Van Niekerk says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll return to South Africa after that. He played for the Springboks on their European tour last November but for now, playing for Toulon is what consumes him. And with the Heineken Cup to look forward to, you can sense that Van Niekerk has found his place.

“I’m really enjoying it. I’ve got another year after this season and then we’ll see what happens. Life is full of surprises.”


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