Big Joe’s growing pains

Joe van Niekerk tells SA Rugby magazine how his playboy lifestyle affected his rugby career and insists he’s not the same person he was 18 months ago. But is this change we can believe in?

joeEighteen months ago Joe van Niekerk couldn’t stand looking at himself in the mirror. He struggled to motivate himself to get out of bed. Until that point the narrow road had held no appeal for him. He saw no sense in self-denial and wholeheartedly embraced hedonism. No, the narrow road held no appeal. He chose the 100-lane superhighway where life moved at Mach 3 and poisonous suitors who fuelled his insatiable appetite for the high life rode shotgun, while a career that once held immense promise was relegated to the back seat, where it sat quietly, often tapping on the driver’s shoulder just to remind him it was still alive. Barely. But still alive.

Publicly he denied that his playboy lifestyle was slowly strangling his career. He steadfastly maintained that a series ofserious injuries had blunted his momentum and predicted, annually, that he would return to the form that earned him a Springbok debut at 21, that won him the SA Player of the Year award in 2002 and that commanded a nomination for the Young Player of the Year award in 2001 and 2003.

Seasons passed, but only fleetingly did that fresh-faced kid with the beatific smile, galloping stride and defence-busting explosiveness who once mesmerised highly regarded critics, surface. Instead we were routinely let down.

It was like a Cirque de Soleil production where they’d given all the eastern European super swingers, tumblers and acrobatic phenoms the night off, and instead recruited a motley crew from Boswell Wilkie. Big Joe. Bigger disappointment.

Van Niekerk is sitting in his 140m² apartment he shares with international model girlfriend Dominique Piek, in Carqueiranne, Toulon. He’s called it home since calling time on his career with the Lions and taking up a lucrative one-year deal with the Top 14 side who spend money like the stuff grows on the tree-lined streets of the the southern French city.

He tells me he’s grown up over the past 18 months. No more wild nights of excess. He acknowledges, finally, that his lifestyle was affecting his rugby. He says he knows what he wants in life and that rugby is a top priority.

joe-2I want to believe him. Really I do. But I’ve heard this rhetoric before. So I’ve grown cold to Big Joe and his empty promises – like a teenager whose formative years were spent being constantly disappointed by his father. As a means of self-preservation, I expect the worst. I’m not alone in this view, I’m sure.

Still, against my better judgement I’m drawn in. Sold to this smooth talker. I want to believe because, even though I’ve sat in the stands at countless games where Big Joe was dwarfed by players who weren’t worthy of lacing his boots, so too have I seen him captivate an audience in a manner few loose forwards have. He’s selling me the idea that he’s negotiated his troubles and will no longer be a beautiful letdown.

I want to tell a story about a teenage prodigy who was derailed but found his way back and is now poised to touch the ceiling of his potential. But there’s doubt. So I listen as Joe speaks, hoping for the dénouement, where I will be throughly convinced of authentic and lasting change.

‘I’m not the guy I was 18 months ago,’ he asserts. ‘I look back at that person and realise how many bad choices I made up to that point. I was in denial about the fact that my lifestyle was hurting my rugby. I know now that I was deluded to even think I could separate the two.

‘I hated the fact that I was criticised for what I did in my free time. My whole outlook was that this is me. This is Joe. I love partying hard. Deal with it. It was who I was and I wasn’t going to change for anybody. My way was the right way and nobody could tell me differently.

‘Life was a jol for me. Rugby almost became a sideshow. I took what I wanted from the game. It was all take, take, take. I always backed my ability and believed that I could turn it on when I needed to. That’s why it was so frustrating to hear people criticise me when I thought I was doing really well. I realise now that I was in denial, but at the time you don’t have that kind of perspective.

‘I’m sure you know what it feels like when people are constantly asking you to be something you are not. I thought that guy was me. I’m 28 now. With age comes emotional maturity and maturity brings perspective and understanding. I know now that wasn’t the real me. Perhaps I was trying to compensate for something. Perhaps I was dealing with disappointments the wrong way. I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist. But I know I’m different now.’

Right, then. There’s that rhetoric again. Pretty persuasive. It’s melted my icy exoskeleton. But why is this time different to the countless others? Van Niekerk’s response is simple, but it’s relatively convincing.

‘This time I’m doing it for Joe,’ he says. ‘In the past I did and said what I thought would make people happy. I tried to convince myself that it was what I wanted. But the reality is that it wasn’t.

‘I’ve never really been forced to sacrifice to get rewards. Things generally came pretty easily to me – I’d travel all over the world playing rugby and having a jol. Now I realise that I have to lay some things down. That’s been tough. I’m not going to lie to you and say it’s been this dramatic change overnight. Man, do you know how hard it is watching your chinas go out and party hard? Do you know how tough that is? Not to do something that’s so ingrained in rugby culture and that’s been part of you for the longest time? Ja, that’s tough hey. Some players can do it and they won’t get sucked into bad situations like I was, mixing with the wrong crowd and so on. I can’t.

‘So I still have a lekker jol, but now I’m wary of the fact that I’m vulnerable in a way some other players aren’t. So I know when to call “time”. In the past I just kept going and going. Now I’ve got to walk away when I feel close to the edge. That’s so hard, but I realise I have to sacrifice if I want the rewards.’

His lowest point came in mid-2007. The World Cup squad was announced in Cape Town. Joe van Niekerk was overlooked. He’d returned from injury to produce some outstanding performances for the Stormers. But nobody, except Joe, expected him to make the cut.

‘That hurt like you won’t believe,’ he says, his tone still laced with the deep disappointment. ‘But it was probably the catalyst I needed to pull myself together.

‘It took a long time to get over that. The Springboks are in my blood. I’ll die for that jersey and that’s why I’ll never be closed to playing for the Springboks. Maybe the choices I was making off the field don’t back that statement up. But it’s true.’

‘Do you look back now and lament your lifestyle choices and wonder where you may have been had you focused more on your rugby?’ I probe.

‘Sometimes,’ he replies. ‘As a youngster I was entrusted with a lot of leadership responsibility. I captained SA Schools, SA U19 and SA U21 and played some good rugby in that time. Then, I think the perception of me as a party boy affected my coaches’ trust in my leadership ability. I helped to create that perception though.

‘I think I would have been a very good leader of some of the sides I played in, and I think my overall game would have been at a different level than where it is now. That’s the challenge now. I’ve moved to the next level in my personal life. Now I feel my rugby is taking a step up as well.’

Van Niekerk has no more time for hypotheticals. ‘Maybe I should have grown up earlier. Maybe this. Maybe that. I can’t deal in maybes anymore. I can’t look back and wonder. I made some bad choices. I was and am never going to be clean-cut like John Smit or Victor Matfield. I admire their professionalism, but they have very different personalities to mine, and just because I don’t make the same choices they do doesn’t mean I’m any less professional.

‘This is me now. It’s a new chapter with Toulon. The fact that Tana Umaga would entrust the captaincy to me has to say something, right? This is Tana Umaga, a legend and a great judge of character. I know the only way I’ll convince people of a change is through performance. I can’t fool the rugby fraternity into thinking I’m OK. I’ve made some empty promises in the past. This time is different.’

I’m sold in my heart but my head refuses to follow suit. I can’t write the story of triumph the majority of the South African rugby fraternity want to read. I can only hope it plays out that way. Time, I settle, will judge Van Niekerk’s authenticity.

By Ryan Vrede

This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April issue will be on sale from 18 March.