PHYSICALITY, strong defence and hard work at the breakdown are key ingredients to winning any rugby match and Kwagga van Niekerk showed all three qualities as Watsonians put down a marker with a Super Series Championship win over Ayrshire Bulls last Friday.
Given they were the 2022 Championship winners, when Watsonians lost 64-0 on their home turf at Myreside to Heriot’s on September 1st it sent shockwaves around those who follow the part-time professional competition.
It was their biggest defeat in any Super6/Series tournament since it all began back in 2019 and back-row/second-row van Niekerk, 24, said: “You can either go into your shell after a result like that or you can use it to reset and help you to get back to the standards that as a team you know you are capable of.
“We were all very frustrated by the Heriot’s result, no one likes getting turned over like that on your own turf, but soon after we all said to each other that we wouldn’t let it define our season in a negative way and we took lessons from it and moved on.
“In the next game, we managed to beat the Future XV and then against Ayrshire Bulls last weekend I thought we put in our best performance of the season so far.
“We have played the Bulls enough times to know the physicality they bring, but we matched that and every time they looked like getting a foothold in the game we managed to knock them back.
“It was slightly frustrating from a pack point of view to lose the tries in the manner which we did, but in general all of the forwards stepped up and we want to really build from here now and keep high standards for the rest of the competition.
The 26-21 triumph over the Bulls completed a regular season double over them for Watsonians and it is fair to say that the two clubs have built up quite a rivalry at this level in the last four years.
Watsonians are currently third in the standings behind Heriot’s and the Bulls heading into this coming weekend’s round of fixtures with the Myresiders travelling to the Greenyards to play fourth placed Southern Knights at 5.30pm on Saturday.
As the competition moves towards November’s top four play-offs, van Niekerk is going to be an important man for Nikki Walker’s men and he has really stepped up recently in the absence of regular captain Neil Irvine-Hess and Seb Cecil from the back-row.
The South African-born player qualifies to play for Scotland via his maternal grandfather Hector McBeth who lives in Cape Town. Van Niekerk himself grew up in Johannesburg and it was at Monument High School in Krugersdorp that his rugby really began to take off.
“Monument has quite a reputation for rugby and it allowed me to play at a good level and be exposed to tough opponents and get involved in things like Craven Week which is a big deal in schoolboy rugby in South Africa and was a good platform to show what you can do,” the man who was named in the TOL Super Series Championship Round Eight Dream Team and whose cousin Nathan McBeth plays for Glasgow Warriors, explained.
“By under-16 level I was playing for the Golden Lions and I played under-18s for them too and one under-19 Currie Cup game before signing a two year contract,” he continued.
“My grandad was born in Edinburgh, so I always knew about my Scottish qualifications, and in late 2018 Carl Hogg [the then under-20 head coach] invited me to Scotland for trials and I played in a warm up match with Wales.
“He then called me to tell me that I was in the squad for the 2019 under-20 Six Nations and that was a proud moment for myself and my family.
“My mum and my grandad were especially excited and they have loved that I have had connections with, and lived in, Scotland for a large chunk of time since then.”
Van Niekerk played in the age-grade Six Nations mentioned and was part of the squad that went to the World Championship in Argentina later that year.
He then returned to South Africa for his under-21 year with the Lions, but a bulged disc in his lower back put him out for quite a long spell. He managed to get back playing though, including some Varsity rugby, and by 2021 he was ready to return to Scotland.
“Fergus Pringle [the then Watsonians head coach] called me up and was keen for me to join Watsonians at Super6 level and I thought it was the right opportunity for me at the time,” explained van Neikerk, who is currently working as a labourer with Laurence McIntosh and studying project management.
“I wanted to get back to Scotland to try and push my claims for a professional contract and maybe one day go on and play for the national team.
“Since I joined Watsonians I have loved the environment and a core of guys have been around the group since then.
“We have had some success in the past and we want more in the coming months, so it is up to us as a squad to keep working hard and peak in time for the Championship play-offs.
“I have also trained in the pro environment from time to time and I was lucky enough to make my Edinburgh Rugby debut against Leinster in February 2022 off the bench [a 26-7 away loss in the URC].
“That is the level I want to get to again more regularly going forward in my career because I have had a taste for it. I know that the back five of the scrum is a position of strength right now in this country, but I’ll just keep working hard with Watsonians and take any chances that come my way.
“I am loving life in Scotland with my partner [Nicole] and, as I said, it is still my dream to one day play rugby for the full national team and make my family even prouder.”