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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Friends and teammates pay tribute to 'class act' Garth van Niekerk after Abu Dhabi Harlequins centre loses battle with cancer

Quins and Dubai Exiles players - many of them former teammates of Van Niekerk's at Saracens - embrace in huddle after Friday night's game before news of his death in his native South Africa

Garth van Niekerk, seen here training with Abu Dhabi Saracens but most recently a player with city rivals Harlequins, passed away in his native South Africa on Friday after losing his battle against colon cancer. Antonie Robertson / The National
Garth van Niekerk, seen here training with Abu Dhabi Saracens but most recently a player with city rivals Harlequins, passed away in his native South Africa on Friday after losing his battle against colon cancer. Antonie Robertson / The National

Friends and teammates have paid tribute to Garth van Niekerk, the Abu Dhabi Harlequins player, who died on Friday night.

The South African centre, 28, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in September, just days after playing 80 minutes for his new side Harlequins in the opening match of the season.

After his condition deteriorated, he returned to South Africa just under two weeks ago, having joined his Harlequins teammates for one final time after the win against Dubai Hurricanes on October 20.

Van Niekerk was widely regarded as one of the outstanding rugby players in the region, initially as part of the backline of Abu Dhabi Saracens.

He made the switch to city neighbours Harlequins during the summer, and immediately impressed his new colleagues by way of both his skill on the field, as well as his manner off it.

Craig Nutt, another former Saracen who moved to join Harlequins at the same time as Van Niekerk, was one of his closest friends in the game here.

He relayed the news of his death to his teammates on Saturday morning, just hours after Harlequins and Dubai Exiles players had shared an embrace to remember their stricken friend.

Harlequins beat an Exiles side which contained several of Van Niekerk’s former Saracens teammates, 29-25 on Friday night.

Many of the players on either side wore pink, cancer-awareness socks, as a nod to their friend. Nutt, coincidentally, scored a rare try.

“Life can be unfair sometimes,” Nutt said. “He was such a nice fellow, and everyone that ever met him would say the same. He was a very humble guy and will sorely missed by a lot of people.”

Mike McFarlane, the Harlequins coach, said it was difficult to comprehend the speed at which Van Niekerk’s condition diminished.

“He phoned me the next day,” McFarlane said of finding out the diagnosis in September.

Members of the Abu Dhabi Harlequins gather in a huddle after defeating the Dubai Exiles 29-25 at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi on Friday night. The players were informed the following morning that their teammate Garth van Niekerk had passes away in South Africa. Christopher Pike / The National
Members of the Abu Dhabi Harlequins gather in a huddle after defeating the Dubai Exiles 29-25 at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi on Friday night. The players were informed the following morning that their teammate Garth van Niekerk had passes away in South Africa. Christopher Pike / The National

“Usually I put a message out to the players saying, ‘If you have any knocks, let me know.’ He phoned me and said: ‘Mate, I might be out for a few weeks.’

“I said that he had looked alright the day before, and that I didn’t notice any knocks or niggles. He told me he had cancer, and he even apologised.

“I wasn’t ready for that conversation. From there, it turned to how we could support him. As a club, we tried to do whatever we could for him and his family.”

The coach echoed Nutt’s sentiment that Van Niekerk was a class act, on and off the field.

“He was a standout player, and a great gentleman who was super humble,” McFarlane said.

“Everyone said the same, whoever he met. He was such a dominant player on the field, but really quiet and humble off the field.

“He was not with us for long, but he did the whole pre-season with us, and wouldn’t miss a session. He was class.”

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Van Niekerk’s day job was as a flight paramedic for Abu Dhabi Aviation Search and Rescue.

He had completed a masters degree in emergency medicine, before becoming a flight paramedic age 26.

Wayne Hayman, the chief paramedic for the Search and Rescue team, recalled a gifted colleague who was “one of the best educated paramedics in the country”.

“It is shocking to all of us,” Hayman said. “He was one of the youngest, fittest guys on the team.

“He went from having mild, stomach discomfort, to, a week later, being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. It is so sad.

“He was certainly one of the most loved people. If the Facebook messages, from around the world, are anything to go by, he was an absolutely top bloke, one of the most amazing guys you could meet.

“He was really going places, and was a phenomenal guy. For this to happen to him, it is absolutely devastating.”

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