Joe van Niekerk’s rugby career ended seven years ago when Toulon won the French Championship and the European Cup. It was a fairytale ending for a player who had regularly led a cast of rugby superstars, including Bryan Habana and Jonny Wilkinson, to success. The South African captained the club for four years, but in his final season he knew that as the spotlight continued to shine on his teammates in the picturesque French port city, it was slowly fading out on him. Time went on relentlessly. Van Niekerk celebrated the successes with his teammates wholeheartedly and then quietly left the podium. He was hardly seen for the next two years.
Van Niekerk came out of those two years as a different man, both physically and mentally. “No one had seen me for very long,” he recalls. “I really spent that time learning how to manage my mind and my body. I started to feel comfortable with solitude and studying yogis. I had to cleanse my body from the absolute carnage of 15 years of professional rugby.
“I read about yogis and how their day would start at 4:30 am with a cold bath, do their mantras and go to the beach and watch the sunrise. I was still in France, but I didn’t go to games or interact with rugby. I had to look inside myself. There was a sense of loss there, who the hell am I? You have been told that you are this and that. You are Joe the rugby player. Then that’s gone and, despite that initial sense of loss, I’ve finally found so much joy and peace.”
Van Niekerk had grown up as something of a rugby prodigy in South Africa, making his debut against the All Blacks in 2001, not long after his 21st birthday. Blessed with good looks, a quick turnaround and unrelenting physicality, he was paid tribute in the front and back of South African newspapers, even when he decided to take on a new challenge in Toulon.
During his two-year isolation period, a photographer took a quick photo of the now bearded Van Niekerk. The man who was once known as “Big Joe” in South Africa and “The big JoeIn France, because of his tendency to overthrow opponents, he had grown thin and his hair had grown long. The tabloid press at home began speculating about his health.
“South Africa love their rugby and even though I was out of the game for a while someone came up with this image of me looking very different and losing about 15kg. In those two years I had experienced so many shifts and was really happy with where I was. People could say whatever they wanted. I took none of it to heart. I just understood that they were curious. Even if they said unkind things, I didn’t mind. It was a big shock to some of my closest friends and even my mother to see me physically so different, but the change has allowed me to develop an even closer relationship with them.”
After two years of solitary study in France, Van Niekerk decided to get into a motor home and travel the world. Travelers would have encountered a jovial, bearded South African along the way, who had little idea of his previous life as a rugby star, which suited Van Niekerk perfectly. Finally, after a long period of exploration, he arrived in Costa Rica. The Philosophy of the Country of “pure life” or pure life immediately appealed to him and he decided to turn off the motor of the motorhome and make the country his base of operations.
“I was exploring everywhere, just so excited about the opportunities ahead. During the two years of getting to know myself and taking care of my body and mind, I realized I wanted to be of service to other people. a lot of compassion came out of that work and that really appealed to me.In the end this idea brought me to Costa Rica where we bought a 25 hectare organic farm.We organize several transformational trips for people and honestly I can’t tell you how much joy it is When you see someone arrive here mentally and physically tired and then go out feeling rejuvenated, I realize I’m in the right place.”
Van Niekerk has run transformation clinics for hundreds of people on his farm, Rama Organica. Most of them have no idea that he played 52 games for South Africa and won the European Cup. He helps executives with burnout and exhausted builders who are looking for relaxation. Every day Van Niekerk wakes up to the sound of birds in the surrounding jungle and he lays out piles of fresh organic food for his customers. His guests hike to waterfalls and connect with each other. He wants them to have everything they need to recharge their mind and body. Ultimately, he wants them to leave the farm and be transformed into happier people.
The farm has few references to his previous career, other than a small springbok pennant Van Niekerk keeps in a drawer and a pair of old boots he has lying around in case anyone wants an impromptu game of rugby. However, he still loves the game and sees parallels to the life he now leads in the jungle.
“We get people here from all walks of life and you have to find a way to connect with them. When I headed Toulon, I had every type of color, creed, and culture you can imagine. Whether it was a South African, a Pacific Islander, an All Black or a Frenchman, I always had to find a way not only to lead them towards a common goal, but also to make them believe in sacrificing their bodies. for the club jersey. You should ask them: How much are you willing to risk your body for your brother? Now I work in a very different world, but I’m still trying to pull everyone in one direction towards a common goal.”
Van Niekerk thinks a lot about transformation. When he was 15 years old at a boarding school in Johannesburg, he watched Nelson Mandela walk to Ellis Park for the 1995 World Cup final, to cheers from a predominantly African crowd. He understood the power of sport to change hearts and minds in an often divided country.
He had a similar thought when he sat down to watch Chasing the Sun, the documentary about South Africa’s victory at the 2019 World Cup. “The way Rassie [Erasmus] approach to transformation with that team was amazing to watch. Watching that documentary gave me goosebumps, watching not only Rassie’s genius and how he united this collection of players into an unstoppable brotherhood, but also the captaincy of Siya Kolisi. That man is a story. He came out of nowhere to lift the William Webb Willis trophy. If that doesn’t inspire you, then what does?”
He has looked back on his career, spoken to teammates who have faced enormous mental challenges after the end of their careers and watched others thrive in their new lives. He has come to believe that showing vulnerability can become a superpower.
Van Niekerk recently spoke to Jonny Wilkinson and smiles broadly when he talks about his former out-half. “Jonny was just a pleasure for the captain. Not just about what he did on the pitch, but more importantly, the example he set. He regularly spent two hours post training and when young kids coming through see that, they realize this is what is needed. We recently reconnected and it was just a huge pleasure. It was very powerful to see where he is spiritually; he asks the deep questions. He is a very deep thinker and has gone on his own journey to find out who he is after rugby, which is so nice to see.”
Not long ago, Van Niekerk was driving near his farm when he saw a local man whose vehicle had broken down. He stopped to see if he could help and the man just smiled, waved at him and shouted, “pure life” . Things go wrong in life, but we have to keep smiling. In his search for meaning and healing after the long physical struggle of his rugby career, Van Niekerk has found pure life.
Jonathan Drennan is on Twitter and you can read his interviews here.