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

Joe van Niekerk’s rugby profession ended seven years in the past with Toulon successful the French championship and European Cup. It was a fairytale end for a participant who had frequently led a forged of rugby superstars, together with Bryan Habana and Jonny Wilkinson, to success. The South African had captained the membership for 4 years however in his last season he knew that, whereas the highlight continued to blare down on his teammates in the picturesque port French metropolis, it was slowly dimming on him. Time was shifting on ruthlessly. Van Niekerk celebrated the successes together with his teammates heartily after which exited the stage quietly. He was barely seen for the subsequent two years.

Van Niekerk emerged from these two years a totally different man, each bodily and mentally. “No one had seen me for a very very long time,” he remembers. “I spent that point actually getting to grips with my thoughts and my physique. I used to be getting snug with solitude, and learning yogis. I wanted to cleanse my physique from the absolute carnage of 15 years {of professional} rugby.

“I examine yogis and the way their day would begin at 4.30 am with a chilly tub, doing their mantras and going to the seashore and watching the dawn. I used to be nonetheless in France, however I wasn’t going to any video games or participating with rugby. I wanted to look inside myself. There was a feeling of loss there, who the hell am I? You’ve been advised you’re this and that. You’re Joe the rugby participant. Then that’s gone and, in spite of that preliminary feeling of loss, finally, I discovered such pleasure 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 throughout his debut for the Springboks in 2002. {Photograph}: Nigel Marple/Getty Photos

Van Niekerk had grown up as one thing of a rugby prodigy in South Africa, making his debut towards the All Blacks in 2001 not lengthy after his twenty first birthday. Blessed with attractiveness, a fast flip of tempo and unrelenting physicality, he was feted in the back and front of South African newspapers, even when he determined to take up a new problem in Toulon.


Throughout his two-year interval of isolation, a photographer took a fast shot of the now bearded Van Niekerk. The person as soon as often known as “Massive Joe” in South Africa and “Le Grand Joe” in France due to his propensity to bowl over opponents had change into skinny and had grown his hair lengthy. The tabloid press again house began to speculate about his well being.

“South Africa is loopy about their rugby and, regardless that I’d been out of the sport for a whereas, somebody popped up with this picture of me the place I appeared a lot totally different and had misplaced round 15kg of weight. Throughout these two years, I had skilled so many shifts and actually was very completely happy about the place I used to be. Individuals might say no matter they needed. I didn’t take any of it to coronary heart. I simply understood that they had been curious. Even when they stated unkind issues, I didn’t thoughts. It was a large shock to a few of my closest mates, and even my mum to see me so totally different bodily, however the change has led to me constructing even nearer bonds with them.”

After two years of solitary examine in France, Van Niekerk determined to get into a campervan and journey the world. Travellers would have met a jocular, bearded South African on the highway, with little thought of his earlier life as a rugby star, which suited Van Niekerk completely. Ultimately, after an prolonged interval of exploration, he arrived in Costa Rica. The nation’s philosophy of “pura vida” or pure life appealed to him instantly and he determined to flip off the campervan engine and make the nation his base.

“I used to be exploring throughout the place, simply so enthusiastic about the potentialities that lay earlier than me. Throughout my two years of getting to know myself and studying to take care of my physique and thoughts, I realised I needed to be of service to different folks. There was a lot of compassion that got here from that work and that actually appealed to me. In the end this concept led me to Costa Rica, the place we bought a 25-hectare natural farm. We organise totally different transformational journeys for folks and, truthfully, I can’t inform you the pleasure it brings. Whenever you see somebody arrive right here drained mentally and bodily after which go away revitalised, I realise I’m in the proper place.”

Van Niekerk has led transformation clinics for tons of of individuals on his farm, Rama Organica. Most of them don’t know he made 52 appearances for South Africa and received the European Cup. He helps executives scuffling with burnout and exhausted builders searching for rest. Every day, Van Niekerk wakes up to the sound of birds in the surrounding jungle and lays out piles of contemporary natural meals for his purchasers. His company hike to waterfalls and join with one another. He desires them to have every little thing they want to recharge their our bodies and minds. In the end, he desires them to go away the farm reworked into happier folks.

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The farm has little reference to his earlier profession aside from a small Springbok pennant Van Niekerk retains stashed in a drawer and a pair of outdated boots he has mendacity round in case anybody desires an impromptu sport of contact rugby. He nonetheless adores the sport, although, and sees parallels to the life he now leads in the jungle.

“We get folks right here from each stroll of life and also you want to discover a approach to join with them. After I was captaining Toulon, I had each kind of color, creed and tradition you may think about. Whether or not it was a South African, a Pacific Islander, an All Black or a Frenchman, I at all times had to discover a approach not solely to lead them for a widespread trigger however get them to consider in sacrificing their our bodies for the membership’s jersey. You might have to ask them: to what diploma are you keen to put your physique on the line on your brother? Now I’m working in a very totally different world, however I’m nonetheless working to get everybody to pull in one course for a widespread objective.”

Van Niekerk thinks a lot about transformation. When he was 15 years outdated in boarding college in Johannesburg, he noticed Nelson Mandela stroll on to Ellis Park for the 1995 World Cup last to rapturous cheers from a predominantly Afrikaner crowd. He understood the energy of sport to change hearts and minds in an usually divided nation.

He had a comparable thought when he sat down to watch Chasing the Sun, the documentary about South Africa’s victory in the 2019 World Cup. “The way in which that Rassie [Erasmus] approached transformation with that group was wonderful to watch. I had goosebumps watching that documentary, not solely watching the genius of Rassie and the way he bonded this assortment of gamers into an unstoppable brotherhood, but in addition the captaincy of Siya Kolisi. That man is a story. He got here from completely nothing to raise the William Webb Willis trophy. If that doesn’t encourage you, what is going to?”

Having appeared again on his profession, spoken to teammates who’ve confronted large psychological challenges after their careers ended and watched on as others have thrived in their new lives, he has come to consider that displaying vulnerability can change into a superpower.


Van Niekerk spoke to Jonny Wilkinson not too long ago and smiles extensively when discussing his former out half. “Jonny was simply such a pleasure to captain. Not solely on what he did on the discipline however importantly, the instance he set off it. He was frequently spending two hours after coaching and, when younger children coming by see that, they realise that is what is required. We reconnected not too long ago, and it was simply a large pleasure. It was very highly effective to see the place he’s spiritually; he’s asking the deep questions. He’s a very deep thinker and has gone on his personal journey of discovering who he’s after rugby, and that’s such a pleasure to witness.”

Not way back Van Niekerk was driving close to his farm when he noticed a native man whose automobile had damaged down. He stopped to see if he might assist and the man simply smiled, waved him on and referred to as out “pura vida” . Issues go mistaken in life however we now have to hold smiling. In his pursuit for which means and therapeutic after the lengthy bodily battles of his rugby profession, Van Niekerk has discovered the pure life.

Jonathan Drennan is on Twitter and you may learn his interviews right here.

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