Big Joe: Like you’ve never seen him before

In the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, former Springbok Joe van Niekerk opens up on his fascinating journey from rugby player to community leader of a healing sanctuary in Costa Rica.

For many rugby fans, memories of ‘Big Joe’ van Niekerk will revolve around his impressive exploits on the field, with the blonde loose-forward dynamo featuring in 52 Tests between 2001 and 2010.

However, in an exclusive interview with Ryan Vrede in our latest issue, he shares his remarkable story of how he opted to follow a different calling, which ultimately led him to a life in the remote parts of Costa Rica.

‘When I finished playing, I felt a calling deep within my soul to be part of pioneer a vision that helped people step into an organic way of life,’ he explains. ‘Part of that is becoming more conscious of the way how we live impacts the planet. So, I live on a former organic farm turned healing sanctuary called Rama Organica in the jungles of Costa Rica. I’m a co-owner and we’ve had the farm for three years. It has been a challenging and humbling journey, but we’ve stuck to the vision.’

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While this may be viewed a dramatic departure from the life of a rugby player, Van Niekerk says there are various values from team sport that he has been able to use in his new vocation.

‘You need teamwork and strong leadership for Rama to function effectively as well. We’re all working towards a common goal, which it shares with a team sport as well. People come to our retreats for various reasons. Some seek healing and closure, things they can’t transcend or balance. Others come for an adventure packages, which we cater for. So we tailor our programmes to your needs.’

Ultimately, as Van Niekerk’s rugby career began to wind down, the 39-year-old says he had to undergo intense introspection before realising that there was more to life.

‘You go from an environment where almost everything is taken care of for you. All you have to do is prepare your body and mind to win matches. You play in front of packed stadiums weekly and you are elevated to god-like status. So you question yourself when you’re out of that environment.

‘You feel like a misfit. Some guys handle it better than others, but there are a lot who spiral downwards quickly because the transition is too hard for them, for whatever reason.

‘Your whole identity is wrapped up in what you do. I had to ask myself hard questions. “Am I Joe van Niekerk, the rugby player? Or is there something deeper and more profound about my identity?” Obviously we are more than what we do. So it was a journey to understanding that I’m more than an athlete and that that is enough.’

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In this wide-ranging interview, Van Niekerk also reflects on his rugby career – both the ups and downs – and openly admits he made mistakes along the way.

‘You have to remember that I was a 22- or 23-year-old kid who moved to WP. There are some kids that age who are mature and can hold the line, but I wasn’t and that showed in some of the choices I made in my social life. I also got injured at the 2003 World Cup and didn’t play for WP for the first six months of my contract. The media and public lashed out at me for something I had no control over.

‘That energy was created before I even started playing. Again, I didn’t do myself favours by going out a lot. It didn’t look good – convertible BMW speeding around town, blonde hair, in the clubs all the time, playboy vibes. But I was young and immature. In hindsight, I was also trying to deal with the trauma of my father passing away when I was 14 and I had to be this man at an age when I should just be enjoying my life.

‘There was so much unresolved stuff related to his passing. Of course I didn’t deal with it constructively back then. I only the affect it had on me way down the line, like when I was 34 or so. The way I dealt with the gossip back then was to say, “Who are you to tell me how to live?” That was a childish reaction because deep down I knew I wasn’t living right. I wish I’d had the intellectual capacity I do now, back then. But I didn’t, so its a period of my life I just have to reflect on as a lesson.’

*The full interview with Van Niekerk is available in our April of SA Rugby magazine, which is now on sale. During this period of lockdown, we hope you are able to get your hands on the latest copy, but we will continue to bring you the best possible content. You can also subscribe here

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Ryan Vrede