In an exclusive interview, ex-Springbok JOE VAN NIEKERK talks about his spiritual evolution in Costa Rica, how his views on recreational drugs were taken out of context and being inspired by Siya Kolisi’s style of leadership.
Sport24 asked: How did you find the transition from rugby after 15 years?
Joe van Niekerk: Getting to the end of your career can prove quite a challenging time. It can either be seen as terrifying or as an opportunity to really grow. It’s a subject which is close to my heart because I know the struggles some players go through once they come to the end of their careers. I was known as ‘Big Joe’ the rugby player and that formed my identity, but as we know there is something far more profound which exists in each and every single one of us. A lot of players will look outside themselves for the answers, whereas I feel that the answers for transcending these things lie within us. My journey over the last six years has been about exploration of consciousness, looking inward for answers and forgiving myself. I’m based in the southern part of Costa Rica at an organic farm called Rama Organica and we live on the base of the Talamanca mountain range. I feel blessed to have made the move four years ago and the reason was to grow our own food, drink the cleanest water, create a vision for sustainability and operate as a healing sanctuary. With this pandemic, I’m grateful we are in a very good position for whatever may come. For me, it’s about reconnecting with the source and true nature of who we are so as to allow us to transcend all the negativity and hardships in this life.
Sport24 asked: What is your take on drinking and doping within the game?
Joe van Niekerk: I definitely feel that there was an ethos of drinking within rugby when I played. From my own personal experience, we were young and inexperienced then. I lost my father at the age of 14 and had to deal with the loss by becoming the man of the family at a very young age. I don’t think I ever really dealt with his death until later on life. Drinking was always part of the culture when I started my rugby career. I don’t judge someone because they drink alcohol but there are other modalities out there which aren’t currently legal, but could help immensely especially with physical pain. When you consume alcohol you delay your own body’s mechanism of healing. At the age of 27, I reached a point where my back was literally and figuratively against the wall. I was injured, had no contract and my girlfriend at the time was going to leave me. I realised then that drinking and partying had gotten out of control. I really pulled myself towards myself and decided to quit because it was no longer serving me. I went through a three-year period at the Lions without any alcohol and thereafter at Toulon, which did wonders for my rugby and life. Frankly, I don’t think it does anything good for your life and it used to make me numb in a lot of ways. When I consumed alcohol I wasn’t able to be really clear and was also unable to control my emotions. Being without alcohol has brought awareness, clarity and so much more joy to my life... In terms of the topic of doping in sport and recreational drug-use, growing up in South Africa there was always a feeling that if you stepped out of line you would be dealt with in a severe and punitive way. There are many different reasons why players take recreational drugs and my comments were taken out of context. Two years ago, I did an interview with a French publication, which was recently google-translated into English. The article states that I think there should not be any punishment for recreational drug-use. This is not true. I said we should look at each case individually and could help players that get caught in a more compassionate way. If you were to smoke a joint before a match would you be able to play rugby at the top of your game? The answer is no. It isn’t a performance-enhancing drug - it’s actually a plant and therein lies the contradiction. I’m not condoning the use of alcohol, pharmaceuticals, recreational or performance-enhancing drugs. All I’m saying is that it’s part of our society and we should deal with this humanely. I believe we need to bring more empathy towards players that test positive for recreational drugs.
Sport24 asked: Was your versatility across the backrow a blessing or a curse?
Joe van Niekerk: At stages, I think that was to my detriment because I was never a natural openside flanker. What happened was Schalk Burger injured his neck and I was moved to openside in 2006 and Pierre Spies debuted at No.8. It’s a very technical position and I was part of the side that suffered the (49-0) hiding to Australia in Brisbane. I was normally a backrower in the line with skills, but I was the kind of guy who would step into any position for the Springboks. For me, it was a matter of life or death and I would have played prop for South Africa if necessary because my blood was green. South African rugby and playing for the Springboks was everything for me. In the end, my backrow versatility didn’t do me any favours because people judged me on how I played as an openside and I was never one. I held my own with certain of the fetchers that were out there but it wasn’t my preferred position. I was a team man and I would have done it no matter what. Jake White said to me, “Are you prepared to play that position?” and I was like, “Ja, I am. I will do it and will give it my best shot.” But we suffered a couple of hidings that year and it was not that positive for me in many ways.
Sport24 asked: What do you expect White to offer when coaching the Bulls?
Joe van Niekerk: Jake is a man I respect in rugby circles and his resume says it all. When I was playing I completely took on what Jake wanted. He was after players that could push a certain amount of weights and hit high standards on the physical testing side of things. This excellence in performance was definitely what pushed the team to greater heights. However, what was to my detriment in the end was that I took all of that on board and I was pushing so many weights prior to testing. Some of my strengths as a player were agility, speed and skill, but when it came about that we needed to push 160kg and do repeat sprints, it engulfed me and became an obsession. In hindsight, I think I pushed myself too hard too early. I slipped a disc in my back, which ruled me out of 2007 World Cup selection. I have since gotten over the disappointment of missing out…
Sport24 asked: What led to your French move in 2008 and how was the ride?
Joe van Niekerk: My time at Toulon was a magical experience. I left South Africa and didn’t have the burdens of what was being said in the media and rugby gossip circles. I was able to completely focus on rugby. The coach at the time was Tana Umaga, who for me was one of the ultimate players and guides. I used to call him ‘predator’ because he was a beast. He was one of the mentors who, along with Loffie Eloff, showed so much faith in me. For the first year and a half I played for a lot less financially. The experience stripped me of everything, which was good. It took me down a level to the basics and I had to rebuild. I learned the language and immersed myself in French culture. As I became entrenched at the club, I was appointed captain. I saw myself more as an orchestrator and someone who could bring energy when needed. At other times, it was best to be silent and let my teammates come to a conclusion. Once they did, I would say, “Okay cool, this is the direction we’re going to take.” The likes of Carl Hayman and Jonny Wilkinson were the best in the world in their positions. When you are playing with players of that calibre all you have to know is when there needs to be that moment of motivation. The blessed leaders will be able to listen and hear each and every single player.
Sport24 asked: What have you seen in Siya Kolisi as a leader which inspires?
Joe van Niekerk: I have met Siya once before and first and foremost what I observed was his humility. If you look at all the great leaders the humility with which they carry themselves is a huge trait. My particular style of leadership, which I feel is Siya’s too, was about incorporating the whole and not being dictatorial or approaching the situation form a totalitarian point of view. In Siya, I see someone who has dropped all divides and any form of separation. It’s about using the skills of each and every player and getting to know them on a personal level. If you can create bonds outside of rugby then what happens when you hit the pitch it’s like you are brothers. I think that is what happened with the 2019 World Cup-winning Springboks, who created that ethos and energy from within. You need to have a tight strategy and know what to do in each area of the field, but for me the template for success in professional sport is about creating bonds and having each other’s back.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests. Who would you invite and why?
Joe van Niekerk: I would invite Nelson Mandela. He was absolutely iconic and such an example. When I think of South Africa he comes to mind. I believe people could really take in his message right now. I was fortunate enough to meet him and he has touched my life in so many ways. I would also have Bob Marley over. I’m really connected to Rastafarianism. I am now sporting dreadlocks and I’m going ‘Jungle Joe’ all the way! Within Rastafarianism I love the way that the feminine energy is adorned and respected. I would also love to spend time with my master Sri Mooji. (Mooji is a Jamaican spiritual teacher who is based in Portugal). I’m really drawn towards his teachings and the truth that he is. There are teachers on this planet who aren’t in it for material gain… The likes of Sri Mooji and the Dalai Lama are the people we really need to listen to during these times rather than the mainstream media and politicians. When truth is spoken, it plants a seed, and we know.