Joe van Niekerk: from rugby fields to a farm in the Costa Rican jungle

Joe van Niekerk’s rugby career ended seven years ago with Toulon winning the French championship and European Cup. It was a fairytale finish 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, while the spotlight continued to blare down on his teammates in the picturesque port French city, it was slowly dimming on him. Time was moving on ruthlessly. Van Niekerk celebrated the successes with his teammates heartily and then exited the stage quietly. He was barely seen for the next two years.

Van Niekerk emerged from those two years a different man, both physically and mentally. “Nobody had seen me for a very long time,” he remembers. “I spent that time really getting to grips with my mind and my body. I was getting comfortable with solitude, and studying yogis. I needed 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, doing their mantras and going to the beach and watching the sunrise. I was still in France, but I wasn’t going to any games or engaging with rugby. I needed to look within myself. There was a feeling of loss there, who the hell am I? You’ve been told you’re this and that. You’re Joe the rugby player. Then that’s gone and, in spite of that initial feeling of loss, eventually, I found such joy and peace.”

Joe van Niekerk tackles Aaron Mauger of the All Blacks during his debut for the Springboks in 2002.
Joe van Niekerk tackles Aaron Mauger of the All Blacks during his debut for the Springboks in 2002. Photograph: Nigel Marple/Getty Images

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 turn of pace and unrelenting physicality, he was feted in the front and back of South African newspapers, even when he decided to take up 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 “Le Grand Joe” in France due to his propensity to bowl over opponents had become skinny and had grown his hair long. The tabloid press back home started to speculate about his health.

“South Africa is crazy about their rugby and, even though I’d been out of the game for a while, someone popped up with this image of me where I looked a lot different and had lost around 15kg of weight. During those two years, I had experienced so many shifts and really was very happy about where I was. People could say whatever they wanted. I didn’t take any 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 mum to see me so different physically, but the change has led to me building even closer bonds with them.”

After two years of solitary study in France, Van Niekerk decided to get into a campervan and travel the world. Travellers would have met a jocular, bearded South African on the road, with little idea of his previous life as a rugby star, which suited Van Niekerk perfectly. Eventually, after an extended period of exploration, he arrived in Costa Rica. The country’s philosophy of “pura vida” or pure life appealed to him immediately and he decided to turn off the campervan engine and make the country his base.

“I was exploring all over the place, just so excited about the possibilities that lay before me. During my two years of getting to know myself and learning to look after my body and mind, I realised I wanted to be of service to other people. There was a lot of compassion that came from that work and that really appealed to me. Ultimately this idea led me to Costa Rica, where we purchased a 25-hectare organic farm. We organise different transformational journeys for people and, honestly, I can’t tell you the joy it brings. When you see someone arrive here tired mentally and physically and then leave revitalised, I realise I am in the right place.”

Van Niekerk has led transformation clinics for hundreds of people on his farm, Rama Organica. Most of them have no idea he made 52 appearances for South Africa and won the European Cup. He helps executives struggling with burnout and exhausted builders looking for relaxation. Each day, Van Niekerk wakes up to the sound of birds in the surrounding jungle and lays out piles of fresh organic food for his clients. His guests hike to waterfalls and connect with each other. He wants them to have everything they need to recharge their bodies and minds. Ultimately, he wants them to leave the farm transformed into happier people.

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The farm has little reference to his previous career apart from a small Springbok pennant Van Niekerk keeps stashed in a drawer and a pair of old boots he has lying around in case anyone wants an impromptu game of touch rugby. He still adores the game, though, and sees parallels to the life he now leads in the jungle.

“We get people here from every walk of life and you need to find a way to connect with them. When I was captaining Toulon, I had every type of colour, 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 for a common cause but get them to believe in sacrificing their bodies for the club’s jersey. You have to ask them: to what degree are you willing to put your body on the line for your brother? Now I am working in a very different world, but I am still working to get everyone to pull in one direction for a common goal.”

Van Niekerk thinks a lot about transformation. When he was 15 years old in boarding school in Johannesburg, he saw Nelson Mandela walk on to Ellis Park for the 1995 World Cup final to rapturous cheers from a predominantly Afrikaner 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 in the 2019 World Cup. “The way that Rassie [Erasmus] approached transformation with that team was amazing to watch. I had goosebumps watching that documentary, not only watching the genius of Rassie and how he bonded this collection of players into an unstoppable brotherhood, but also the captaincy of Siya Kolisi. That guy is a story. He came from absolutely nothing to lift the William Webb Willis trophy. If that doesn’t inspire you, what will?”

Having looked back on his career, spoken to teammates who have faced huge mental challenges after their careers ended and watched on as others have thrived in their new lives, he has come to believe that showing vulnerability can become a superpower.

Van Niekerk spoke to Jonny Wilkinson recently and smiles widely when discussing his former out half. “Jonny was just such a pleasure to captain. Not only on what he did on the field but importantly, the example he set off it. He was regularly spending two hours after training and, when young kids coming through see that, they realise this is what is needed. We reconnected recently, and it was just a huge pleasure. It was very powerful to see where he is spiritually; he’s asking the deep questions. He’s a very deep thinker and has gone on his own journey of discovering who he is after rugby, and that’s such a pleasure to witness.”

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 him on and called out “pura vida” . Things go wrong in life but we have to keep smiling. In his pursuit for meaning and healing after the long physical battles of his rugby career, Van Niekerk has found the pure life.

Jonathan Drennan is on Twitter and you can read his interviews here.


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