The Joe van Niekerk you knew and loved more than a decade ago is no more. He’s gone. The back-rower who played 52 Tests for the Springboks has dissolved in the mist of time that stretches from Johannesburg to Toulon, and now Costa Rica. His fearless runs off the fringes and stomach-churning tackles are lost to the random access memory of all except rugby scholars and scribes.
The exuberant and sometimes errant boykie in green and gold had slipped the tackle of conventional wisdom – and emerged a few years ago as a dreadlocked, bearded, bona fide Joe of the Jungle in Costa Rica, with a labradorite gemstone around his neck for healing and cleansing, and loose-fitting clothing for ease of movement during yoga classes.
The Port Elizabeth-born, Johannesburg-raised rugby prodigy now runs an organic farm and transformational community in the South Pacific Zone of Costa Rica. It’s not the conventional retirement of choice for former rugby stars. They are usually more drawn to pontificating about the game in the commentary box or trying their hand at coaching. Van Niekerk still loves the game, but he’s had his fair share of it and was determined to beat a new path to happiness, here in the dense jungle.
“The people here are very pura vida. In Costa Rica, pura vida means the simple life or life is good. For example, if my car broke down and I was Costa Rican, the typical saying would be, ‘Ah, pura vida. I’m not going to get stressed about this situation, I’m just going to let it be. This is what God wants.’
“So that’s the kind of vibration that exists here and I find it very calming. Only four million people live in the country. There is no military here, the people are peaceful. The jungle animals are exceptional and we have some of the most diverse species of birds here,” Van Niekerk says as his thoughts give way to a smile, almost in disbelief at the paradise he is describing.
“For me, it’s about pioneering into a new realm or paradigm of life, really connecting with Mother Nature, and an organic way of life.”
Rediscovering himself after rugby
Life for the former Stormers and Lions loose forward today entails a different set of rigorous tasks, far removed from the intense, high-impact regimen of a rugby professional but similar in adherence to a set of principles and discipline. A typical day for him starts at 5.30am with a cup of South American arabica, before he heads out to the lake to feed the ducks, work in the organic garden and then host group classes at the healing sanctuary.
“Most of the processes are about connecting to the heart, yourself and who you truly are. It’s about stepping out of the busy schedules of peoples’ lives,” he explains. “A lot of it is about healing and spirituality. I know the pain I went through towards the end of my career and I want to share as much as I can with other athletes, and with people who are going through the same loss of identity and trying to rediscover who they really are.”
The rugby public got to know the name Johann “Joe” van Niekerk early on, as a star King Edward VII School (KES) captain, before he led the Under-19 and Under-21 national teams. Over the years, his precocious talent for rugby asserted itself on his six-foot, four-inch body and leveraged off his good looks to propel Van Niekerk to peak rugby stardom. It was the kind of treble that made him the darling of South African rugby fans for many golden years – and he was the golden child.
Van Niekerk was worshipped as a player by fans and coaches searching for the next big thing, so much so that he was fast-tracked from the Under-21s straight into the Springbok squad. The team he walked into were in the throes of a rebuilding phase, with a few 1999 Rugby World Cup bronze medalists preparing to end their glittering careers. It was this rapid elevation to the senior ranks that would have a lasting impact on Big Joe’s life choices, and his body.
“I’ll never forget some of those training sessions. I was with Marius Joubert and we both got called in at the same time. I just remember looking around the room and it was all these veterans, like André Venter, Joost van der Westhuizen and Bob Skinstad. It was surreal to be in the same company as them, running and holding tackling bags. They were like gods, and now you’re part and parcel of them and training with them and interacting with them,” he says fondly.
From Johann the rock star to Jungle Joe
Where once injuries and pain were a defining feature of Van Niekerk’s rugby career, it is now healing and transformation that gives purpose to his life as he enters his forties.
In South Africa, a young, brash Van Niekerk found himself mentioned in the wrong pages of local newspapers in 2004 after a nightclub brawl in Cape Town. There were other claims of erratic behaviour commonly associated with spoilt, young sportsmen in South Africa with money to burn and alcohol as an accelerant.
Now, the new Jungle Joe is immersed in a world that couldn’t be further from the raucous beer-swilling crowds, frantic playing schedules and incessant scrutiny by the general public. For Van Niekerk, crossing the advantage line in the pursuit of peace and healing is the only objective these days. He now exudes the calmness and joy that eluded him for all those years on and off the rugby field.
“Being put into a team when you’re very young and having not gone up the levels of [provincial and franchise] rugby and being put straight into the Springbok team was hard on my physical body. I was 21 years old and playing against guys who were 28. There’s a big age difference. You’re playing against men, when you’re still a boy,” Van Niekerk says.
“Before the 2007 Rugby World Cup, I hurt my lower back and wasn’t able to be a part of that. That was pretty hard for me to accept. But even though I had the potential to be a part of that winning team, I felt that there was a bigger plan for me.
“Not being part of that team and not playing in the World Cup gave me a lot of time to reflect on where I was in my career, where I had gone to that point and what I needed to do to regain my form. That’s a period where I wasn’t involved with any alcohol anymore, I completely stopped. I was focused and disciplined enough to get myself back to the form I knew I could produce,” he said.
More disappointment was to follow when Northampton Saints in England reneged on a contract with Van Niekerk. It forced the young man to once again re-evaluate his life and the way forward. The moment required wisdom and ability beyond his years, but he found it in Buddhism and in self-healing techniques.
“I’ve always been a follower of self-help literature. A lot of the teachings come through Buddhism. A lot of the situations in our life are not always what we want, but how are we able to respond with a positive action? I’ve always been interested in spirituality. When we’re younger, we’re taught that this world is about materialism and consumption, getting more and becoming more; to have the big house, the beautiful car and the model girlfriend. It was about the outwardly things, the journey outwards. But I found that this was not making me content inside.”
“I asked myself, ‘How can I go back to the basics?’ It’s the right amount of sleep, the nutrition, it’s what you put into your temple. ‘What are you feeding your mind? What are you surrounding yourself with on a daily basis?’ I went straight back to the source, and through that process I was able to regain the discipline I had before, when the nightlife wasn’t as attractive to me, and I could focus on what was needed at that point.”
Proving himself all over again
That return to form saw Van Niekerk have a few good years at the Stormers and then the Lions, playing under his favourite coach from his junior days, Eugene Eloff, the best coach he’s ever had, he says.
“When I went back to the Lions, I was getting paid per game I played. It was like going back to zero and having to work my way back again. I think that gave me a lot of motivation to regain what I had lost. When you don’t have a means to pay for your food, that in itself puts you in a place where you have to have a response; what am I in control of?
“That catapulted me into a different way of being, which is not about chasing whatever it was out there but being focused on what I can take control of. It meant training as hard as I could, and eating and drinking the right things, getting the right amount of rest. Through all of those processes I was able to regain the form and then I got the contract in Toulon and the rest, as they say, is history.”
With the French outfit, Van Niekerk continued to flourish, winning the 2014 Top 14 French League and two Heineken Cup titles in 2013 and 2014. For the last 18 months of his time at Toulon, however, Van Niekerk had slowly slipped out of favour and more often than not he came on as a replacement. He would wake up in more pain every day and his mind was finally beginning to get the message his body had been sending him for all these years.
“I saw that as an opportunity again to go within and not be resentful to anyone, but to keep the positivity high,” he says. “It just seemed like the right thing to do. I’ve had my best years in Toulon. I have so much love for that place. The people are so fanatical about rugby. Leaving was traumatic in a lot of ways, but it was like the dissolving of the ego that for so many years constructed the idea of who I was. I’m Joe the rugby player. It was a shedding of that shell. The Buddhism and the practice of looking within and not outside at everyone.”
Big Joe now looks nothing like the rugby player most people remember him as, and in many ways is no longer the person we knew. “Each and everything that happens to us in life, we have an opportunity to look at it for what it truly is, and we can transcend it. That’s where the wisdom comes in. The morning after we won Top 14, I woke up in a world of pain. It was the catalyst to shift and transform completely in the direction of wholeness and goodness and nourish my soul.
“For 15 years that I played professional rugby, it was like every injury I picked up over the years came to that moment for me to say I really want to shift from within. They call it the dark night of the soul, when you can’t carry on anymore in a certain way. I realised in that moment, that’s it for me. I wanted to cleanse my body after all the punishment it took. That’s when I started searching for truth, and it brought me here.”