Cornal Hendricks became a Springbok because he had the courage to pursue his goals, writes RYAN VREDE.
One decision tells you most of what you need to know about Cornal Hendricks as a man and, by extension, a rugby player. Before we get into exactly what that decision was, we need to establish some context in order for you to fully appreciate its magnitude and the fullness of the man.
Hendricks grew up in Hillcrest (known as Peyton to the locals), an impoverished suburb of Wellington in the Western Cape’s Boland region. One of five siblings, Hendricks was a self-confessed ‘difficult’ child, not averse to mingling with trouble magnets. His magnetic force was, however, weak in this regard, and despite regular warnings from mother Rachel and minor incidents in and around the area – ‘she’d often come looking for me, at which point I’d hide because she was very scary when she was angry’ – Hendricks’ gang star never
rose. His rugby one did.
Inspired by brother Clinton, a Roses United 1st XV regular in his day, and a love for the game passed down through three generations, he soon became a kid worth watching. Midweek he trained furiously and Saturdays were spent playing in the morning then watching the 1st XV.
‘That was my world. All my goals and dreams were geared towards playing for Roses United’s 1st XV,’ he recalls. ‘When you played in that team, you were a hero in the community. People looked up to you, wanted to be like you. I first saw it in the way they treated my brother. He was my rugby hero too, even though he was a lock or a flank. He used to take me along with him to the training sessions and matches, educate me about the game and inspire me to be where he was one day.’
Hendricks’ parents divorced when he was very young but he is at pains to stress that his dad played an active role in his life.
‘Look, the divorce was tough. I didn’t know exactly what was happening at the time and my mom probably didn’t have the strength or desire to explain it. My dad moved out, but whenever I needed anything, he would sort it out. Money for rugby tours, no problem. Boots, sure. He couldn’t give me as much time as I wanted, but he was there in other ways. He was never a big rugby man but often during my early career I’d spot him tucked away in the crowd or get a text from him after one of my matches saying: “Well done. You were great today. I’m proud of you.” That meant a lot and still does. My mom is my biggest supporter, though.’
This was evident when Hendricks was playing an U13 tournament in Durban. His mother had made the trip and was her usual vocal self on the touchline. The team engineered a touchline break for Hendricks, whose speed saw him capitalise. He picks up the story. ‘On my way to the tryline I saw my mom in the corner of my eye, sprinting down the touchline with me. I went over the line with a big dive and she did the same. We still laugh about that now but it is a perfect example of how passionate she is about my success in the game.’
Tears flowed when the Springbok call was received. Hendricks and best friend Franzil had travelled to the Cape’s West Coast to escape the fuss around the announcement of the squad for the incoming tour. He had a sense his Super Rugby performances for the Cheetahs would put him in line for a call-up, but didn’t want to be around his family if his name wasn’t read out. It was and he immediately took a call from his mother.
‘We were both crying,’ he says. ‘She had some of my family over and all I could hear was loud shouts like “whahahaha!”’
‘I could have chosen the easier route, but I desperately wanted to be a Bok and I knew that wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t playing Super Rugby'
It was a reward for the hardest and bravest decision he’d ever made in his life. He’d spent a couple of years playing for the Blitzboks, and established himself as one of the best players in the world in the format. The money he was earning through rugby was split between helping support his family in Wellington and covering his own living expenses. His time as a kid at the Boland Academy had taught him to flirt with broke skilfully, as he would often survive on the R50 he’d receive from his mother every fortnight or so. This meant channelling a large part of what he was earning as a Sevens Springbok back home wasn’t an issue.
Then came the offer of a three-year sevens contract valued at between R850 000 and R950 000 per season, with the potential for that to rise above the million mark depending on performances. It would have been the comfortable decision to accept it. Hendricks had mastered the art and science of sevens. But he had a bigger, more daunting dream – to play for the Springboks. There was a contract worth significantly less per season on the table from the Cheetahs. He went for it.
‘I could have chosen the easier route, but I desperately wanted to be a Bok and I knew that wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t playing Super Rugby,’ he says. ‘It was a massive life decision for me and the implications for my family were clear if I didn’t make a success of it. But I didn’t want to look back on my life and regret being too scared to chase my dream.’
Fast forward to the present and Hendricks’ courage has been rewarded. He impressed for the Springboks in June, enough to earn a Bok contract that doubled his annual Cheetahs income.
‘The thing that struck me most about Cornal was how desperate he was to succeed,’ Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer offers. ‘He trained at 100% every session and played the same way. He has a hardness about him that comes from his upbringing, and I like that. He can look after himself on the field. But I don’t want to belittle his technical abilities, which are very good. He has unbelievable feet – he can beat any player in a one-on-one situation – and great acceleration. His game intelligence is also very good. There are a couple of things we need to refine, like his aerial ability and tactical kicking, but that will come in time. I’m very, very impressed by him and I think he can be an asset in the years ahead.’
Playing in the 2015 World Cup is Hendricks’ next goal. Given the determination and skill he’s exhibited in his rise, the smart money is on him achieving that goal.
‘I’m the first Bok from my community and that’s something I’m very proud of,’ he says. ‘It puts me in a position to show youngsters there that the sky’s the limit. I wanted to break that barrier. Before this the community had produced mainly Boland players, but now that ceiling is broken. In the past some of the guys from poor communities who became professional players settled into a comfort zone and their careers didn’t last. I won’t allow that to happen to me. I’m not happy just being here. I want to stay here. I want to play 50 Tests for my country.’
HENDRICKS ON …
GOING BACK TO PEYTON
‘My girlfriend lives around the corner from our family home in Peyton, but if we arrange to meet at a certain time, I leave an hour before that because the kids always stop me in the street to play some touchies or chat. I always have time for them because I know I can inspire them to be where I am. I feel strongly about that responsibility.’
FORMER BOK FLYHALF LOUIS KOEN’S INFLUENCE
‘Louis showed me what it takes to be a professional. Even in the early days at Boland he kept telling me I had the talent to be a Bok but that I needed to add the discipline and work ethic to make it. He was crucial to me becoming the man and player I am today. I also have to credit Boland president Francois Davids and Saru manager of junior high performance Herman Masimla for the role they played in my life and career.’
‘I never made the Boland U16 Grant Khomo Week team. That made the route to the top harder. I also never had any money when I was at the Boland Academy. I know what it means to have nothing, which makes me appreciate what I have now more. I also had a rocky start to my sevens career, where I was sent back to Boland to work on areas of my game. I was on the verge of giving up. I thank God I didn’t.’
– This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine