Joe van Niekerk’s rugby career ended seven years ago with Toulon winning the French league and the European Cup. It was a fairy tale ending for a player who had regularly led a cast of rugby superstars including Bryan Habana and Jonny Wilkinson to success. The South African had 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 dying out on him. Time passed mercilessly. Van Niekerk warmly celebrated the successes with his teammates, then left the stage quietly. He was hardly seen for the next two years.
Van Niekerk emerged from those two years a different man, both physically and mentally. “No one had seen me for a very long time,” he recalls. “I spent that time really mastering my mind and body. I was getting comfortable with solitude and studying yogis. I needed to cleanse my body of the absolute carnage of 15 years of professional rugby.
“I read about yogis and how their day started at 4:30 a.m. with a cold bath, doing their mantras and going to the beach and watching the sunrise. I was still in France, but I was only going to no games or playing rugby. I needed to look within. There was a sense of loss there, who the hell am I? You were told you were this and that. You are Joe the player Then it went away, and despite that initial feeling of loss, I finally found such joy and peace.
Van Niekerk had grown up something of a rugby prodigy in South Africa, making his debut against the All Blacks in 2001 shortly after his 21st birthday. Blessed with good looks, a fast pace and a relentless physique, he was celebrated in the front and back pages of South African newspapers, even when he decided to take on a new challenge in Toulon. .
During his two-year period of isolation, a photographer took a quick shot of the now-bearded Van Niekerk. The man once known as “Big Joe” in South Africa and “The Big Joe” in France due to his propensity to knock down opponents had become skinny and had grown his hair long. The tabloid press at home began to speculate about his health.
“South Africa are crazy about their rugby and although I had been out of the game for a while someone came up with this image of me where I looked very different and had lost about 15 kg of weight. In these two years I had experienced so many changes and I was really very happy with where I was. People could say what they wanted. I didn’t have anything taken to heart. I just realized that they were curious. Even if they said mean things, I didn’t mind. It was a big shock to some of my closest friends, and even my mother, to seeing myself so different physically, but the change has led me to bond even more closely with them.
After two years of solitary study in France, Van Niekerk decides to get into a motorhome and travel the world. Travelers would have encountered a bearded, jovial South African on the road, with no idea of his previous life as a rugby star, which suited Van Niekerk just fine. Finally, after a long period of exploration, he arrived in Costa Rica. The country’s philosophy ofpura vida» or the pure life seduced him immediately and he decided to turn off the engine of the motorhome and make the country his base.
“I was exploring everywhere, so excited by the possibilities that were available to me. In my two years of getting to know myself and taking care of my body and mind, I realized that I wanted to be at the service to others. There was a lot of compassion that came out of this work and I really enjoyed it. Eventually, this idea led me to Costa Rica, where we bought a 25-hectare organic farm. We organize different transformational journey for people and honestly I can’t tell you the joy it brings. When you see someone come here mentally and physically fatigued and leave revitalized, 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 made 52 appearances for South Africa and won the European Cup. It helps executives struggling with burnout and exhausted builders looking for relaxation. Every day, Van Niekerk wakes up to the sound of birds in the surrounding jungle and prepares heaps of fresh organic food for his customers. Her guests walk to the waterfalls and connect with each other. He wants them to have everything they need to recharge their body and mind. Ultimately, he wants them to leave the farm transformed into happier people.
The farm has few references to his previous career, apart from a small Springbok pennant that Van Niekerk keeps hidden in a drawer and a pair of old boots that he drags around in case anyone wants an impromptu match of touch rugby. He still loves the game, however, and sees parallels to the life he now leads in the jungle.
“We welcome people from all walks of life here and you have to find a way to connect with them. When I was captain of Toulon, I had all the colors, beliefs and cultures imaginable. 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 for a common cause but also to make them believe that they had to sacrifice their bodies for the club jersey. You have to ask them: how willing are you to put your body on the line for your brother? Now I’m working in a very different world, but I’m still working to get everyone pulling in one direction for a common goal.
Van Niekerk thinks a lot about processing. At the age of 15, at a boarding school in Johannesburg, he watched Nelson Mandela go to Ellis Park for the 1995 World Cup final to the rapturous cheers of a mostly Afrikaner crowd. He understood the power of sport to change hearts and minds in an often divided country.
He had the same 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] approaching transformation with this team was amazing to watch. I had goosebumps watching this documentary, not only watching the genius of Rassie and how he bound this collection of players into an unstoppable brotherhood, but also the captaincy of Siya Kolisi. This guy is a story. He came from absolutely nothing to lift the William Webb Willis trophy. If that doesn’t inspire you, what will?
After reflecting on his career, talking to teammates who faced tremendous mental challenges after their careers ended, and watching others thrive in their new lives, he came to believe that showing his vulnerability can become a superpower.
Van Niekerk recently spoke to Jonny Wilkinson and smiled broadly while discussing his former half. “Jonny was such a pleasure to be captain. Not only on what he did on the pitch, but more importantly on the example he set. He regularly spent two hours after training and, when the youngsters children see this, they realize this is what they need. We reconnected recently, and it’s just been a tremendous pleasure. It was very powerful to see where he is spiritually; he asks the deep questions. C He’s a very deep thinker and he’s gone on his own journey to find out who he is after rugby, and that’s such a treat 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 him and the man just smiled, waved him on and shouted “pura vida” . Things go wrong in life but you have to keep smiling. In his search for meaning and healing after the long physical battles of his rugby career, Van Niekerk found life pure.
Jonathan Drennan is on Twitter and you can read his interviews here.