Cornal Hendricks is determined to keep inspiring others after completing a remarkable comeback to the sport, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Hendricks recalls the darkest moments of his life in vivid detail. In late-2015, doctors told the dual-code international he had a rare heart condition and that he would never play rugby again.
Hendricks fell into a deep depression. Whenever he thought about his Stormers and Springbok teammates running on to the field without him, he would lament the cruel hand he had been dealt. Whenever he thought about representing the Blitzboks at the 2016 Olympic Games – a dream that was taken away from him in the wake of a life-changing medical verdict – he broke down in tears.
His story could have ended there. While Hendricks was bowed, however, he was not broken. He pulled himself off the canvas and got back into the fight.
He tells SA Rugby magazine that it was his faith as well as the support of family that gave him the strength to bounce back. Heyneke Meyer, who gave Hendricks the first of his 12 Test caps, offered him a place with the Asia Pacific Dragons – a composite side based in Hong Kong – when no other professional side would take a chance on a ‘medical liability’.
Hendricks was cleared to play by a top cardiologist, and yet top teams like Toulon continued to turn him down. He returned to South Africa to play club rugby for Roses United and Paarl RFC. In 2019, he was rewarded for his bravery and determination when the Bulls offered him his first pro contract in nearly three years.
This chapter in the Cornal Hendricks story ends with the Bulls winning back-to-back trophies in a watershed 2020-21 season. It climaxes with Hendricks producing a Man of the Match performance and lifting the Currie Cup.
‘Cornal has been phenomenal,’ Bulls director of rugby Jake White said shortly after the final against the Sharks. Hendricks boasts a number of skills, and yet it was his attitude as a fighter that White harnessed to telling effect in the Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup campaigns.
What’s more, the decision to use Hendricks – typically a wing – at inside centre proved inspired.
‘He’s probably been our best player,’ White said. ‘All Blacks legends Ma’a Nonu and Tana Umaga were great No 12s but actually started their careers on the wing. Cornal has got a great appreciation for space and an understanding for what guys in the midfield need to do.
‘I’m stating the obvious when I say he’s professional and dedicated. I am very happy for him in terms of his comeback.’
Hendricks is grateful to have come through the ordeal. He hopes that players who experience something similar over the course of their careers will realise what’s possible when you simply refuse to quit until you realise your dreams.
‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without divine intervention,’ he says. ‘I may have been out of the street, in a gang, or worse. I’ve focused on my faith, and that has kept me on the right path.
‘When I started out for the second time, I knew I had to make every second count,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t enough for me to perform as a player, though. I realised I had a responsibility to the younger generation on and off the field.
‘I told the players at the Bulls about where I had come from and what I had gone through. I encouraged them to ask me for advice. I’ve been through some bad things in my life, but I like to think I went through all that for a reason. I can now reach out and make a difference in other people’s lives.
‘I also want to inspire my community in Wellington. That’s been my goal since I began this journey.’
Hendricks’ wife and two young children have remained in the Western Cape throughout his three-year tenure with the Bulls in Pretoria. He says his family and, indeed, the residents of his old neighbourhood are never far from his thoughts.
‘Where I come from … there is no hope,’ he says. ‘You can see why people are encouraged to make bad choices. They see the druglords driving past in their flashy cars. They believe that is the only path to success. They don’t realise that the druglords are responsible for ruining people’s lives. They don’t understand that there are other ways to be a success in life.
‘Now that they know they have someone from their community who has won a Currie Cup, who has had other successes through rugby, maybe they will be inspired to follow suit. It’s not about where you come from, it’s where you are going. That is a philosophy that has taken me far in life.’
Hendricks laughs when he asked whether he ever dreamed that this rollercoaster ride would peak with him playing No 12 for the Bulls.
‘I’ve got to give credit to Coach Jake and assistant coach Chris Rossouw. They made me believe it was possible.
‘I spent some time at outside centre during the early parts of my career and I swore I would never play No 12. Jake and Chris explained how they wanted to use the No 12 in the Bulls game plan, though, and it made a lot of sense to me. It’s not like they asked me to change my natural game. On the contrary, they wanted to harness my strengths.
‘I was a bit nervous about how it would all pan out. I’m surprised it’s been hailed as such a great success. I know that I’m still a work in progress.’
Hendricks is quick to give the Bulls credit for throwing him a lifeline in 2019. The team as a whole has taken significant strides over the past year or so. Local billionaires Johann Rupert and Patrice Motsepe have bought a controlling stake in the franchise, and a number of key personnel changes have been made to the administration, coaching staff and player roster.
Hendricks feels grateful to be part of a group that is evidently on the rise. The Bulls ended a 10-year wait for a major trophy recently – and yet the best may be yet to come.
‘It feels like Coach Jake and everybody at the franchise, from the CEO to the cleaning staff, are all part of something special. The coaches and the administrators have bought into this idea of making us better people and players.
‘We’ve achieved a fair bit already, but I’m excited about what’s to come. It’s a great position to be in. You want to do well and you know that whatever happens in future, you have people around you who truly care.’
Will he return to the Springbok set-up? Hendricks would prefer to revisit the conversation after he’s played in a more challenging environment such as the Rainbow Cup – and subsequently the Pro16.
‘There’s been a lot of hype since the Currie Cup final. If the Bok coaches decide I’m worth considering, I’m not going to say no. I will play wherever they need me. But I’m not getting ahead of myself. I have a lot I want to achieve with the Bulls this year. I’m realistic about where I stand as a No 12. In Europe, I will be up against Test centres and I will be playing in different conditions.
‘We’ve already done a lot of work in terms of analysing the opposition and what will be required of us in certain positions. I’m sure the opposition will look at me as a less experienced centre. Maybe they will look at me as a weak point in the team. So I have to keep improving.
‘When I began the season, I wasn’t the same player I was two or three years previously. When I finished the Currie Cup, I wasn’t the same player I was before lockdown. By the time the Rainbow Cup starts, I should be a new and improved player, a different player once more.
‘You can’t afford to stay the same,’ he adds. ‘It’s going to be a big challenge, but I’m not going to back down.’
Indeed, opponents will underestimate this man at their peril.