On the rugby field he was a weapon of national destruction. In his own fields, former Springbok star “Big Joe” van Niekerk is now as gentle as a dandelion, an organic farmer more interested in cabbage patches than cauliflower ears.
Many will still recognise the 1.93m former Bok loose forward, who owns the Rama Organica, a farm and retreat in the jungles of Costa Rica.
Van Niekerk recently spoke to the Sunday Times about the need for holistic health.
“A lot of people are thinking about their health and immunity – this is a great awakening,” he said. “The questions we should ask ourselves are, ‘within our personal life, what is within our control?’ and ‘how can we support ourselves to greater health?’ I feel people are waking up to that.”
Still recognisable despite dreadlocks and beard, and with all his old enthusiasm, Van Niekerk spoke about his spiritual transformation and personal growth. It was a change from mauls and lineouts.
“It was all a process of realising that material wealth, achievement and success don’t necessarily bring contentment, joyfulness and peace. There is far more to this life than just sport and what job you do on a daily basis,” Van Niekerk said.
Early success – and setbacks such as the death of his father when he was 14 – also shaped a world view beyond rugby.
“That was just one facet of who I am. I feel like we get put on these paths, and we strive for success. We are taught many things in life and that if we reach success we will be happy. But that’s not always true,” he said.
That’s not to say Big Joe the rugby player has disappeared. Last year he went to India, along with former Springbok flyhalf and captain Naas Botha, to support SA’s women’s rugby team.
He describes his conversion from Springbok gladiator to spiritual warrior as a natural progression, and is quick to express his love for a game in which he captained the SA Schools under-19 and under-21 teams, and made his Springbok debut against the All Blacks even though he had not yet played a Currie Cup or Super Rugby match.
He spent much of his subsequent career playing in France, winning the European Cup with Toulon and captaining a team that included England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson.
Charisma was a hallmark of Van Niekerk’s career and was defined by his leadership and outspokeness, but also by repeated injuries. When he was 27, he swore off alcohol for three years, saying it was “numbing” his life experience.
It was a precursor to a broader philosophy that led him and his French partner to visit Costa Rica, where they bought their 27ha farm in the Talamanca mountain range, a three-hour drive from the capital, San Jose.