FNB UJ captain to chase Test rugby dream with Scotland

FNB Varsity Cup

Having represented Scotland U20 two years ago, FNB UJ captain Kwagga van Niekerk still hopes to play Test rugby for his adopted nation.

Van Niekerk passionately led FNB UJ during this year's FNB Varsity Cup, with his performances as a player attracting attention from the rugby community.

The 22-year-old utility forward – who can play lock, flank and No 8 – credits his improvement to a stint with Scotland U20 in 2019.

"Playing in the U20 Six Nations and World Rugby U20 Championship was a turning point for me," he told VarsityCup.co.za. "The level of professionalism and quality of player is extremely high, so I had no choice but to get stuck in and work hard."

Van Niekerk, who qualifies to play for Scotland through his grandfather, earned three caps in the U20 Six Nations and a further four in the U20 Championship. That included meetings against the Junior Springboks and New Zealand U20s, with the former being an emotional experience for the ex-Hoërskool Monument scholar.

"I was a bit taken aback when I wasn't selected for Junior Springbok preparation camps, so when Scotland unexpectedly came knocking, I jumped at the opportunity," explains the second-year Diploma in Transport student.

"Lining up against my countrymen was tough as I love South Africa, its people and its rugby, but the moment the first whistle blew I had to get out of that mindset and focus on my teammates. It was not an easy thing to do."

Van Niekerk returned to South Africa last year, as he was still contracted to the Lions, but has not given up on his dream of playing Test rugby for Scotland.

"I'm grateful to the Scottish Rugby Union for the U20 opportunity," he says. "Their faith in me has changed my career trajectory as I want to move up the Scottish club ranks and hopefully become a fully-capped international for them one day. For now, though, I'm focused on my studies."

Van Niekerk's promising start to his professional career, which also saw him represent the Lions in the U19 and U21 SA Rugby Championships and earn senior caps in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, was almost curtailed in September last year.

"I was training with the Lions U21s and during a flush-out gym session, while squatting, I heard an ominous pop in my back and hip," he recalls. "The pain was intense and I could barely walk to the car.

"The diagnosis was a herniated lower back disc and torn hip labrum. The rehabilitation that followed was intense and it was a dark time in rugby for me. I couldn't really do anything. I was struggling to sleep and tieing my shoes was a mission. I wasn't in a good space at all.

"My faith got me through it," he adds. "Trusting in a bigger plan with the love and support of my family and girlfriend Nicole Spangenberg all contributed to my positivity and ability to bounce back while UJ Rugby was incredible in keeping me goal-focused."

With a full FNB Varsity Cup season completed, it's safe to say that Van Niekerk's career is firmly back on track.