BUENOS AIRES – Former Springbok Cornal Hendricks debuts for the Bulls in Super Rugby this Saturday, four years after being told not to play again because of a heart condition.
Winger Hendricks replaces meningitis victim Johnny Kotze for a second-round clash with the Jaguares in the only change from the team that thrashed Stormers last weekend.
For Hendricks, 30, the match at the Estadio Jose Amalfitani in Buenos Aires represents light at the end of the tunnel after fearing he would never again play the sport he loves.
Hendricks played Super Rugby for the Cheetahs, debuted for the Springboks in 2014 and was set to play for the Stormers when doctors warned him to quit the game.
“I cannot tell you exactly what was wrong with my heart, but the medical message to me was crystal clear - stop playing rugby or face the possibility of cardiac arrest,” he told AFP.
“Those were unbelievably dark days. I had played for the BlitzBokke (national sevens team) and had hoped to be part of the team for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
“Instead, I stayed at my home, severely depressed, and could not bear to watch those I once played alongside as they competed in Brazil.
“I continued to train, but motivating myself was extremely difficult because I felt all the hard work I was in had no purpose.”
Hendricks believed he could play top-level rugby again and got support from former Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer, who took the team to third place at the 2015 World Cup.
“Heyneke and (my agent) Anthony Johnson never gave up hope and after playing some sevens, club and exhibition rugby, the Bulls gave me a contract after I underwent tests last year.”
When Kotze was ruled out of the Jaguares match, recently appointed Bulls coach Pote Human had to choose between Hendricks, Divan Rossouw and Jade Stighling.
He opted for Hendricks, who has played three warm-up matches for the Bulls reserve teams, because of his greater experience and familiarity with Argentine conditions.
Lions coach Swys de Bruin said the ball resembled a “bar of soap” so hot and humid were the conditions when they defeated the Jaguares in Buenos Aires last weekend.
“We are banking on the experience Cornal gained before his lay-off,” said Human. “He is very positive ahead of the match. When I told him he was in the starting line-up, he said: 'I will not let you down'. Hearing those words excited me.”
Hendricks and his team-mates are desperate to build on the 40-3 walloping of the Stormers in Pretoria.
Last season, the Bulls made a similarly spectacular start, shocking the Hurricanes, then lost four consecutive matches and finished 12th of 15 teams.
“We played near-perfect rugby last weekend,” said Human, promoted from number two when New Zealander John Mitchell was appointed England defence coach.
“Now we need to keep our feet planted on the ground and start all over again. The Jaguares will be desperate for a win after losing their first match at home to the Lions.”
The Bulls need only check the 2018 results to realise the task ahead - they conceded 54 points and seven tries in a 30-point hiding in Argentina.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)