Cornal Hendricks: The comeback king

Cornal Hendricks’ return to high-level rugby continues to defy expectations, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Just a few short years ago, Cornal Hendricks was in a dark space. For all intents and purposes, his career looked to be over as the result of a serious heart ailment.

To truly contextualise what he went through, this is how he described the bombshell news of his heart condition in a recent YouTube video: ‘I’d just bought my first house, I’d also signed a deal with the Springboks and the Stormers. It was quite a big contract. I was so happy to move in and start at the Stormers, but then all of a sudden I lost my house, the sponsored cars, everything, and had to go live with my mom to recover financially.’

And even when the 12-cap Springbok believed he was healthy enough to return to play, he struggled to find a team willing to offer him a second chance.

‘I remember crying every night, or when I was driving, the tears rolling down my cheeks,’ he recalled. ‘At the time I felt I couldn’t face the world because I couldn’t play rugby any more.’

However, Hendricks kept the faith and after four years without competitive rugby, the former Bok wing finally received an offer from the Bulls. It was a career lifeline that has since translated to a comeback story for the ages.

During the 2019 Super Rugby competition, Hendricks was deployed on the wing and emerged as one of the real surprise packages. For a wing now on the wrong side of 30, Hendricks may have lost a bit of pace, but he was by no means pedestrian.

With a powerful step and size on his side, the 1.88m stalwart provided more than a glimpse of what South African rugby had lost out on during his four years in the wilderness.

Yet, when the pandemic struck and the Bulls underwent a squad restructuring under Jake White, there were many who may have wondered what role lay ahead for the 32-year-old.

That answer was provided when a towering backline player, sporting a new haircut, popped up in the No 12 jersey for the Bulls’ pre-season warm-up game against the Sharks in September. It required a second glance, but there was Hendricks, doing his thing in the only way he knows how: with utmost commitment.

It was an unexpected but inspired move that negated any loss of speed, while maximising his strengths as a powerful ball-carrier with a long stride and swerving run.

A lot of due credit went to White for making this unexpected positional shift, but not nearly enough plaudits have gone the way of Hendricks, who was one of the few local players to further enhance his reputation during a stop-start domestic season blighted by inconsistencies.

Here was a player slotting into an unfamiliar role late in his career, and yet the transition was seamless. In fact, it was only natural to wonder how effective Hendricks could have been in this position during his prime.

Nevertheless, this is a story to celebrate. From a career that was all but over, Hendricks has found a way to again carve a niche in the game, with his fighting spirit surely serving as an inspiration for anyone battling injuries or setbacks.

To take it a step further, and particularly considering there has been rather limited depth at inside centre, there’s nothing to suggest Hendricks would let the Springboks down should they need to look at expanding their squad options this year.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced numerous changes to the game and necessitated some out-of-the-box thinking. Hendricks stands tall as a player who has epitomised adaptability and unyielding determination.

He would be fully deserving of a fairytale ending to an incredible comeback story.

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Craig Lewis