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Rugby's Miracle Man

Updated: May 25, 2020

The Incredible Story of Springbok Cornal Hendricks

It is easy to forget that every professional rugby player must overcome a great deal of hardships on their journey to success. Injuries, mental health issues, politics are all part and parcel of this beautiful game. Some may play international rugby and their stay may be short while others take to it like a duck to water.

The recent conquest of the 2019 Rugby World Cup by Siya Kolisi and his team of underdogs is perhaps the most famous recent “miracle”. They recovered from the darkest and most controversial two years in Springbok history to reach the proverbial mountain top. Another individual whose story is nothing short of a miracle is that of Schalk Burger Jr. The legendary Springbok, Western Province and Stormers flank suffered a nearly fatal bout of bacterial meningitis in 2013 but was able to play international rugby again the following year and represent his country 86 times in battle enough before his colourful career came to a close at the end of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

However, there is another “miracle” man whose incredible story of resilience and bravery the rugby public seem to have forgotten about entirely ...Current Blue Bulls winger, Cornal Hendricks.

by getty images

*by Getty Images

Born and bred in Wellington in the fruit – growing rural Western Cape of South Africa, Cornal felt that he was always destined to play rugby as he came from a sporting background. His father, brother and grandfather all played rugby and it was watching his older brother play at lock for Roses United that first ignited his passion for the game. Starting at the age of 9, his first experience of provincial rugby was for the Boland u12’s in a team that included future Springboks Juan de Jongh and Francois Hougaard , as well as future Blitzbok star Stephen Dippenaar.

After starring for his alma mater Berg Rivier High School, as well as Roses United, he caught the eye of former Springbok flyhalf Louis Koen acting as a backline coach for the Boland Rugby Union. Koen encouraged then head coach Deon Davids, to include the speedy outside back into his Currie Cup squad for the 2008 season and he went on to make his starting debut against the Free State Cheetahs at outside centre. He was on the losing side that day but was given his first taste of playing against stars of the time such as Robert Ebersohn, Danwel Demas, and Ashley Johnson. His Boland team was relegated the following season but as the old cliché goes, things are darkest before the dawn.

“That 2010 Currie Cup squad was special, we had great coaches in coach Loffie [Eugene Eloff] and Doc [ Dr Gerhard Jordaan]. We had hard-working forwards and Super Rugby quality backline players like Willie [Le Roux] and Elgar Watts. Willie was probably my favourite player to play alongside as we wanted to play the game the same way and could execute plays without even speaking sometimes”, he recalls fondly.

After impressing in the first annual provincial 7’s tournament, where Boland won and he was named Player of the Tournament, Hendricks received a call from then head coach of the South African 7’s side Paul Treu.

“Getting the call to train with the national 7’s side was exciting but adjusting to professional rugby was quite a challenge. Getting used to waking up earlier, training more often and making more sacrifices was difficult. I was behind other players in terms of conditioning and nearly even quit after failing to hit my targets on a bleep test! It was hard at the time but not quitting was the best decision I ever made for my rugby. I became a better person in that environment and the conditioning took me to a different level as a player. I also have to thank Paul Treu for how much belief he had in me and teaching me how to go beyond my limits.”

After playing in his debut SA 7’s tournament in 2011 he became a regular in the side until 2014, when they won the Commonwealth Games. However, that wouldn’t be Cornal’s greatest achievement of the year, he also took the step up to the Springbok team in 2014.

“I had made the decision to join the Cheetahs for Super Rugby because they had a very expansive style of play, which I thought would suit my skills coming in from 7’s. I got on well with Hawies [Fourie] who taught me positional play I couldn’t have learned playing 7’s. There were some familiar faces from my Boland days like Elgar Watts, Willie Le Roux and Rayno [Benjamin].On the back of my performances for the Cheetahs I received a call letting me know that I had been selected in the Springbok Squad for games against the World XV and a test series against Wales”.

As emotional as playing for your country must be, Hendricks had a very different type of emotion from the joy and jubilation you would expect leading up to his first official test cap against Wales. In the week leading up to that test match his grandmother passed away. What to do now?

“There is no way to describe the feeling of knowing you are finally going to be a Springbok, but my grandmother’s death was very hard on our family. I had been offered a Springbok contract the week before and I was very close to leaving camp to attend her funeral as it was meant to be on the Friday the day before our match. But my mother rescheduled it for the Sunday so that I could play. Having her backing and the backing of our family gave me extra motivation to play.”

While not lacking for motivation given this situation, he credits Heyneke Meyer for being a key influence on his performance that day.

“Heyneke encouraged me to focus as much as I could on things that I could control like my performance and made me feel as though I had his full support both on and off the field. Having my mother in the crowd in Durban also meant a lot. She effectively raised me as a single mother and made a lot of sacrifices for me to be where I was. Her being there was extremely important for me”.

Remarkably, the rookie Hendricks scored a try on his debut, a 38 – 16 victory for the Springboks and followed it up with another the following weekend in a pulsating 31 – 30 win against a much improved Welsh side. The team management arranged that he attend the funeral and rejoin the team again on time. The results, his performances and the support he received from teammates and coaches clearly indicated a very healthy team environment.

“The environment was great. I remembered watching the 2007 World Cup in my house. Now I was training with a lot of those legends like Bryan Habana, who really took me under his wing, and Victor Matfield. I would find myself waking up 5 or 6 times a night trying to believe that I was really rooming with JP Pietersen. There was a lot of competition at the time. Guys like Bryan, JP, Lwazi [Mvovo] and Zane [Kirchener] were competing for the same spots but I never held back because I had a drive to be better every single day”.

“Jan Serfontein even started calling me Rudy, like the main character in that American football movie, except that guy never made it and I did!”

*by Getty Images

Being so heavily involved in 2014, he could be forgiven for being tremendously disappointed not to be included in the 2015 World Cup squad. Though hopeful of a late recall after a tournament ending injury to Jean De Villiers, it never materialised. What would his next move be now?

“I was very disappointed not to play a role in that years World Cup because we had trained so hard in the build-up to it. We were pushing ourselves to different levels in terms of the intensity of our training and fitness sessions. There was a massive emphasis on being the fittest team at that World Cup and I was one of the fittest guys in the team. So getting the call from Heyneke telling me that I did not make the squad was heart-breaking”.

After the World Cup, he set his sights on participating in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games via a return for the Blitzbok’s and playing Super Rugby for the Stormers which was the realisation of a childhood dream. But, unbeknown to him, his World Cup disappointment was only the first leg in a two-year long series of obstacles to come.

“I can’t remember the date but I clearly remember that it happened on a Friday. We had training and then we all had medical tests done. I was told by the team specialists that they had picked up something unusual and that I should have a scan and see a cardiologist. When I saw him again for a follow-up, all he said to me was that it was over. I asked him what he meant by that. That’s when he told me that I would not be able to play rugby again and that I should hang up my boots. “I thought, ‘This can’t be real, someone has to be playing a joke on me’.”

It was no joke. He was given a heart – rate monitor and told he should exercise lightly but not to play rugby under any circumstances. As the old cliché goes, ‘when it rains it pours ‘. But this did not begin to describe the mental anguish and uncertainty Cornal faced over the following months. From the cusp of being an Olympian and starting an exciting new journey for his childhood team. His dream and livelihood were yanked away from him at the age of 26.

“I nearly lost everything. I lost my house and my car. I spent a year living at my mother’s family house. I was paranoid about exercising too much in case my heart gave out. I was afraid of dying at home and I could not get anyone to give me the clearance I needed. The hardest parts were the isolation, expecting to get calls that never came. The feeling that people just were not interested in what I was going through.”

It was a dark period for Hendricks and it was his family, faith and foundation that "stopped me from giving up". He recalled, "There were times when I was in the house praying and asked the Lord if you don't want me to play rugby again that's fine, but please take all my emotional pain away. I'd spend nights crying myself to sleep. I would be driving and tears would just be rolling down my cheeks."

It was as if he couldn't handle what the world was throwing at him but Hendricks, clearly a person of faith says, "I believed God helped and healed me and gave me the strength to get back onto the field again."

He had created the Cornal Hendricks Foundation with the aim of assisting his community in Wellington because he did not want to regret not doing as much as he could for others while he was still able to. The foundation helped with feeding the hungry and creating sporting development opportunities for youth, but managing this suddenly became harder as Hendricks now had to 'pay out of his own pocket'.

Hesitant to give away names, it was a chance encounter with a former doctor from his early professional playing days in 2016 that revitalised his hope of perhaps one-day playing professional rugby again. Having heard his story, the doctor referred him to another cardiologist who assured him that his heart was fine and that he could in fact play again. The only problem was that convincing the rest of the professional rugby community was not as simple as showing them he was medically clear. He managed to represent Roses United again in the 2017 Gold Cup but returns through the professional ranks with King and Toulon were not as successful. It soon became clear that medical teams were not willing to take a “risk” on someone who they believed could drop dead at any minute.

Luckily for him, he was determined to maintain his fitness and joined a social touch rugby side in Stellenbosch. One of his team-mates asked him if he would be interested in playing in a 7’s tournament in the Cayman Islands. From there, he received a call from Heyneke Meyer concerning the upcoming annual Hong Kong 10’s tournament and was invited to join his side, the Asian Pacific Dragons. After impressing yet again, he was contacted by another former rugby acquaintance, this time Blitzbok legend Frankie Horne, who asked him something no one else ever had: Would he consider playing rugby in the United States?

The team he had in mind were the Tigers from Roswell, Georgia USA, who former sevens circuit regular Mat Turner played for. Hendricks was sold as soon as he met co-owners Paul Holmes (Founder/ Coach) and James Walker (Founder/ Coach). It was through playing for them, he says, that he found his passion for the game again. Cornal joined Tiger Rugby on a few tours, partaking in both 7's and 10's tournaments for them. It was during this time that footage of him playing, now for Tiger Rugby, surfaced and began receiving a lot of attention online. Before long, he was presented with another unexpected offer. Someone at the Blue Bulls saw footage of him playing in the USA and got in touch to ask if he would like to play Super Rugby again, this time with the Bulls?

*by Max Haynes

“I cannot speak highly enough of James and Paul and the manager, Mark [Price] of Tiger rugby. I developed great relationships with them. Tiger Rugby is truly unique, in that they create a sense of family and unity. A team and group of people who do things the right way, both on and off the field. They gave me a chance to play rugby and showcase my talents again when no one else would. They believed in me.

"Tiger Rugby will always have a special place in my heart. I would never have had the opportunity to play Super Rugby again without them.”

*by Max Haynes

Xander Van Rensburg and Barend Van Graan of the Blue Bulls, were convinced that the prolific try-scorer could contribute to their young side despite 2 years away from the professional game. And, Pote Human, he says, who backed him by giving him game time. For Hendricks, however, he had more to prove than just playing. He mentions, slightly bemused, that his team-mates would check up on his health during fitness sessions to the point that he would have to avoid showing fatigue during those sessions! But he found himself firmly back to a place he never thought he would be again. After gaining the trust of his new team and embracing their style of play, he was part of a run to the 2019 play-offs.

Looking back, Cornal says it has been a bitter–sweet journey. He lost opportunities. He lost time. He was not able to play for his country as much as he would have liked to. But despite all his hardship, he survived. It is a testament to his unyielding spirit, self – belief and passion for the game. With the help of his wife Stephanie and friends, as well as his young daughter Calsey who “inspires me to do my best every day”, he is back in the professional ranks at the age of 32.

* (Instagram, @cornalhendricks)

It has been a long journey from Wellington up to the pinnacle of South African rugby, only to have the rug pulled from under his feet, and then to stand up and play in one of the top competitions in world rugby again. Some may say he will never reach that dream of playing in a World Cup or appearing for the Springboks again. But if his body is even half as willing as his heart, well then, he has already shown that miracles can happen.

Connect with Cornal and the incredible work he and his Foundation are doing in the upliftment and development of the Wellington Community.

Cornal Highlights - Tiger Rugby

Springbok Try against All Blacks - 2014

Cornal Hendricks Foundation

Cornal Hendricks Foundation Contact

Twitter - @chfoundationza

written by Adam Odendaal

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