By Liam Heagney for RugbyPass.com

Ex-Springbok Joe van Niekerk claims that rugby should stop punishing players who take recreational drugs. The 39-year-old, who earned the last of his 52 South African caps in 2010, finished his club career at Toulon in 2014 and has since embraced a new-age lifestyle in the Costa Rican jungle.

Asked by French rugby bi-weekly Midi Olympique if doping was widespread in the game during his career, the ex-back row said: "I don't believe in an organised doping system in rugby but there have always been recreational drugs and frankly, I believe that the rugby authorities should be more lenient with regard to these behaviours.

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"Suspending a player for six months or a year because he or she took cocaine in the evening seems like an exaggeration. Rather than whipping and destroying, we should accompany the players, reach out to them, help them.

"We s*** so much s*** after the games: sleeping pills, tramadol (a muscle relaxant)… do you really think it's good for the body? And yet it is completely legal and widespread. But what bothers me most is seeing alcohol at the centre of everything in rugby.

"We drank litres and litres of beer, me first. However, there is nothing worse after a rugby match: it freezes the blood, it tires, it dehydrates and it slows healing. But alcohol is a part of everyday life in our sport and its lobbies even finance the biggest competitions."

What would van Niekerk's alternative be? "In these mountains, there are a million plants, including cannabis, that can help athletes recover from their efforts. But before it gets down to business, before the pharmaceutical lobbies free the world from their grip, I'm afraid we have time to die twice. Do you realise that we live in a world still afraid of the power of plants? It's ridiculous…"

Joe van Niekerk against the All Blacks in 2002. Photo / Photosport
Joe van Niekerk against the All Blacks in 2002. Photo / Photosport

When the end came for van Niekerk's stellar career, he felt nothing but emptiness and it was only when he moved to the Costa Rican wilds that he began to move on with purpose.

"The day I ended my rugby career, I felt like a void. I asked myself a question: 'Who am I now that someone has taken away my life for 20 years?' Because glory, medals, money and autographs are just an illusion. When everything stops, there are only memories, dust.

"I thought to myself, 'I've been thinking about myself for 15 years, it's time to help others.' With my girlfriend Marie, we wanted to be connected with nature, trees, plants and animals. We both knew Costa Rica. We knew how powerful his nature was. So we decided to drop everything to settle there.

"This valley of Tinamaste is sacred territory, strewn with vestiges of disappeared civilisations. Above all, this place lists the greatest shamans on the planet. With Marie, we bought a piece of land to make it a huge organic farm.

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"Soon we will be able to live in total autonomy, consuming only the vegetables and fruits of our land, drinking pure water from the two springs that flow under our feet… until 2014, I had everything done for me.

"Today I'm under construction. I'm learning marketing, accounting, farming. I learn how to keep a vegetable garden, feed chickens, speak Spanish. I have a life of a man," he explained, adding that he hopes the valley in Costa Rica will potentially become a place for rugby teams to visit.

"All kinds of people visit – business owners, musicians, painters and backpackers. We even host business seminars. In the future, I would very much like to receive rugby teams in pre-season training. In the Tinamaste valley, time allows for a break: we read, we meditate, we drink tea in front of the Andes mountain range while listening to monkeys. And then there are the healing ceremonies."

The article originally appeared on RugbyPass.com and was published with permission