The 28-year-old back row player didn't take part in any of the Springboks' fixtures during 2007 and was a surprise inclusion in Peter de Villiers' first Tri Nations squad.
The new South African head coach was expected to name either Pierre Spies or Ryan Kankowski at No8 for the clash with the All Blacks but van Niekerk's Super 14 form and experience at international level tipped the balance in his favour.
"Joe came back into the Springboks camp after having a brilliant Super 14 and has showed to all of us that he means business," said de Villiers.
"When he got his one chance against Italy he took it with both hands. He earned his place here.
"Joe captained the South Africa U-19s and U-21s and (Super 14 side) The Lions. If you look at the spine of this side, there is a great deal of decision-making running down that spine."
The South African player of the year in 2002, van Niekerk had originally expected to spend last season rubbing shoulders with a number of the players he could now face when the Lions visit his home country this time next year. Van Niekerk signed a three-year deal with newly promoted Guinness Premiership side Northampton Saints in June 2007 but concerns over his fitness led to the cancelation of that agreement before he had turned out for his new club.
Stat attack: all you need to know about Joe
Name: Johann Christiaan 'Joe' van Niekerk
Date of birth: 14/05/1980
Position: Back row
Weight: 108kg / 17st
Height: 1.93m / 6ft 3in
Super 14 side: The Lions
Currie Cup side: Golden Lions
Springbok debut: vs New Zealand, Cape Town, 2001
International caps: 47 (eight tries)
Did you know?
Van Niekerk made his Springbok debut before he had appeared in either the Currie Cup or what was then the Super 12.
He played in 13 of the Lions' 14 Super 14 matches last season.
Four years prior to missing the 2007 Rugby World Cup through a back problem, van Niekerk's 2003 tournament was ended by a cruciate knee ligament injury during the pool match against Samoa.