CAPE TOWN - When Cornal Hendricks was moved to inside centre from wing by Jake White, few critics would’ve thought that it would be the runaway success it became.
Those who have followed Hendricks’ career closely, though, won’t be too surprised by how well the 32-year-old has fared in midfield.
In his pre-Blitzboks days at Boland, the speedster from Wellington had been an excellent outside centre for years at provincial and club level. But he was ignored by Stormers coach Allister Coetzee for Super Rugby action at the time, and eventually made his way to the sevens arena to get international recognition.
The rest was history, as he starred for the Springbok Sevens team and was snapped up by the Cheetahs a few seasons later, where he excelled as a right wing, which saw him make his Springbok Test debut against Wales in 2014.
Having scored five tries in 12 Tests – including a superb effort against the All Blacks in Wellington, New Zealand – Hendricks was struck by misfortune when a problem with his heart ruled him out of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, as well as the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Not only that, he could no longer join the Stormers in 2016 either, as he had been advised to retire. But he never gave up, and kept busy with charity work at the Cornal Hendricks Foundation, while continuing to train and playing the odd exhibition events in the sevens and tens arenas.
The Bulls signed him in late 2018, and that investment has paid off handsomely. Apart from the positional change, he has formed an outstanding midfield pairing with Stedman Gans, and was the Man of the Match in the Currie Cup semi-final and final.
He was again outstanding in the extra-time 26-19 triumph over the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, where he was a constant threat with ball-in-hand for the Bulls and a strong presence on defence, where he also had to guide utility back Marco Jansen van Vuren, who was filling in for the injured Gans.
“This one is very special for us. Coach Jake backing me at 12, so all thanks to the management, coaching staff, and the whole team. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be standing here,” Hendricks – who went on to quote Rudyard Kipling, said in a post-match TV interview.
“We’ve got exciting players outside of us, like Kurt-Lee (Arendse), Stravino (Jacobs). We are just backing each other.
“We always say the strength of the wolf is the strength of the pack, and the strength of the pack is the strength of the wolf. So, we believe in each other. That’s why it makes my job so easy to perform every weekend.”
White was effusive in his praise for Hendricks, describing him as one of the best Bulls players of the season.
“He’s been phenomenal – I think he’s probably been our best player. I played him there and I spoke to (backline coach) Chris Rossouw about him, and jeez: he’s phenomenal,” the former Bok coach said.
“A lot of guys who have played in that jersey for other teams, like Ma’a Nonu, Tana Umaga, and Caleb Clarke coming through now, they’ve always started on the wing, and I think he’s got a great appreciation for space and understanding what guys in the midfield need to do.
“Morné’s been around, Ivan van Zyl looks after him. And there are youngsters like David Kriel, Stravino, Kurt-Lee Arendse on his outside, who are going to learn a lot from a guy like him.
“He’s very professional, he’s very dedicated, a great communicator. Works hard, and he’s a Springbok – he’s been there and done it, and he’s just sharing his knowledge with them.”
When asked if he would recall Hendricks to the Test team if he were to be the current Bok coach, White was guarded about making a case for the Bulls No 12.
“It’s not up to me to decide. Having coached the Springboks, I don’t think it’s fair for provincial coaches to talk about who should and shouldn’t play for South Africa.
“We’re world champions, and have some great coaches. Rassie (Erasmus) and Jacques (Nienaber) know what they’re looking for, and I’m sure if they think he’s good enough and will add value, they will pick him.”