“Big Joe” received the rare distinction of being called-up straight from the South Africa U21 team to the Springbok squad in 2001 before even appearing in the Currie Cup or Super 12. The naturally gifted Van Niekerk, who made his international debut against the All Blacks in Cape Town on July 21, 2001, was plagued by injury throughout his senior career. When healthy, however, he was considered one of the leading back rowers in world rugby.
He was a SA Young Player of the Year nominee in 2001 and went on to win the coveted SA Player of the Year award in what was his defining season in 2002. He was nominated for the award again the following year – where he lost out to Ashwin Willemse – and was a member of Jake White’s Tri-Nations winning squad in 2004, where he scored a crucial try in the Boks’ narrow 23-19 win over the Wallabies in the series finale in Durban. He won his 50th Test cap as an impact player off the bench against Argentina and scored two quick tries to help South Africa to a commanding 63-9 victory. Van Niekerk would go on to play his final Test a fortnight later in the 15-27 loss to Australia in Durban on August 23, 2008.
Records/Honours:SA Young Player of the Year nominee, 2001SARFU Award for Individual Achievement, 2001SA Player of the Year, 2002SA Player of the Year nominee, 2003Member of the Springbok Tri-Nations winning squad, 2004