MARIETTE ADAMS chats to former Springbok wing Cornal Hendricks, who will make his return to professional rugby in 2019 with the Bulls after a serious heart condition had threatened to end his career.
You were diagnosed with a serious heart condition towards the end of 2015. How did you take the news?
I felt I was at the peak of my career at the time. I had just signed a deal to join the Stormers. Growing up in the Western Cape, it had always been one of my dreams to play for them in front of the Newlands faithful. I was in a dark place after the doctors told me my career was over. I endured physical pain, but sometimes the emotional pain was so bad I would just curl up in bed and refuse to have contact with the outside world, or even speak to my family. I couldn’t watch rugby in 2016, including when the Blitzboks played at the Olympics. Whenever I tried, I would imagine myself being there and I would cry. I could have been at the Olympics; instead I was at home thinking I’d probably never be allowed to set foot on a field again. The past three years have been difficult, but 2016 was the worst.
The Bulls have signed you for the 2019 Super Rugby season. How did that come about?
I was invited by Paul Holmes and James Walker, two South African businessmen living in the US, to play for their club Tiger Rugby in two invitational tournaments in Las Vegas and Glendale. They love rugby and started Tiger Rugby a few years back. Somehow they heard of my struggle to find a team and invited me to come over. After the Glendale event two months ago, they asked me to consider joining Tiger Rugby permanently, but a week later the Bulls’ high-performance manager, Xander Janse van Rensburg, called me. He asked if I was willing to fly to Pretoria and undergo a couple of medical tests, and if it all checked out we could talk about a contract. I jumped at the opportunity and here I am.
How does it feel to be back in a professional set-up?
The same as it always has, but this time I’m more appreciative of the people who made this dream possible. I’m grateful to the Bulls, and especially Xander for giving me this second chance and I’m excited to get stuck in with my new teammates. I’ve waited for this moment for three long years and am determined to make the most of it.
What is wrong with your heart?
I can’t go into any great detail; the medical staff have all the information. I just know the doctors believed quitting rugby was the best option for me at the time. There’s no specific name I can give the defect. I have since been given the all-clear by one of the best cardiologists in the world.
Did you ever consider giving up the game and doing something else with your life?
I did, all the time. Local unions and overseas teams didn’t even consider me because they were scared of signing someone who was a potential health risk. With no interest, let alone potential contract negotiations, I felt like I didn’t have the power to keep on fighting for what seemed like a pipe dream, even though I knew I was not ill any more. To train on my own became increasingly difficult because there was no motivation. Then [former Bulls and Bok coach] Heyneke Meyer called and said he wanted me to play for the Asia Pacific Dragons, a composite side belonging to Carinat, the company he worked for. Heyneke selected me for the Boks and he was the one who instigated my comeback. From the moment news about my heart condition broke, he was on the phone with my family, offering assistance. He backed me to play for this team in Hong Kong, and that kept the dream alive. After that I played for two Western Cape clubs, Roses United and Paarl RFC, and it was good being in a team environment again. But being snubbed by professional sides still made me consider giving up.
Who else supported you through this difficult journey?
My mother, Rachel, and wife, Stephanie, were always there, even though I sometimes didn’t want them to be. I’ve never met a more loyal coach than Heyneke. He and my agent, Anthony Johnson, were close allies. They stuck around and used their contacts to try to broker a contract for me. Once they saw the medical reports they backed me and I’m grateful to have had their support through this journey. My faith in God also kept me true and helped me through that tough time.
In December 2016, Toulon announced that you had signed for them, but it failed to materialise. What happened there?
We sent my medical records over, they invited me to come for more tests by their medics, who also cleared me, and a deal was made. After all that, the president, Mourad Boudjellal, decided he first wanted to see me play for some other team before I could represent Toulon. He told me to get game time elsewhere because he was not going to take that risk. When I get back on the field again, that kind of mindset will change. Everyone was just scared, thinking something was going to happen to me, but once I play for the Bulls, those fears will subside.
Are you scared that something could happen to you?
I don’t train or play with fear. Illness and injuries can happen to any player on any day; none of us are guaranteed of anything. But for now I’ve been cleared and I trust the opinion of my specialist, who is highly rated in his field. I’m big on religion and I truly believe God has healed me. It’s going to be a process to get match-fit, but I feel better than ever. At the Bulls I’m in the right system and back at a level where I want to be. I’m not scared of anything.
What is it like being in the Bulls’ environment?
I love it. I live near Loftus Versfeld, which I enjoy. Most of the other boys stay 10km or 20km away from the stadium. Having a lot of players from Cape Town here helps too, but what I’m looking forward to most is linking with guys I played with for the Springboks, like Handré Pollard, Jesse Kriel and Lood de Jager. The set-up here is professional and the conditioning of players first-class. All the staff are very involved with the players’ progress.
Have you set yourself any goals?
You get positive and negative people. I know there are varying opinions on my return and I respect that. Some believe I’m too old and that I should quit. I’ve even heard I’m selfish, because I’m putting myself at risk. But since when is 30 years ‘old’? If you can run and move around with the younger players, you’re in the right place. And that’s why I have so much respect for the likes of Gio Aplon, Rayno Benjamin and Alshaun Bock, all of whom are still playing in their mid-30s. Gio made the Boks’ end-of-year squad, which gives me hope of playing for them again. For that to happen, I have to go out on the field and perform for the Bulls. And while I want to play for the Boks again one day, we have such great depth at wing now that it may be tougher to get recalled than it was to get selected in the first place. But I’ll keep on hoping and working towards the dream of playing in the green and gold again.
– This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.