Cornal Hendricks aiming to again beat the odds and Leinster

The former Springbok was told eight years ago to stop playing rugby because of a heart condition

Just before the Rio Olympic Games every player on the South African Sevens team was put through a standard medical examination. At 26-years-old, Cornal Hendricks, who had emerged from desperate poverty and was at the peak of his physical powers, thought nothing of it.

But his electrocardiogram (ECG) showed something in his heart that caused concern. The consequences were devastating. A lucrative move to the Stormers had already been secured with plans to move abroad after that. But medical opinion was to only ever train lightly and stop playing professional rugby.

His Olympic Games vanished and so did his contracts. He gave up a house in Stellenbosch. His sponsors took back their car from a player who could no longer play. He even moved back to live with his mother.

Hendricks is in Dublin this week to face Leinster. It has taken years, depression and rejection. Subsequent tests he took and opinions garnered from cardiologists did not support the original diagnosis. But the clubs, including French side Toulon, wouldn’t take the risk of a player with a heart condition until Heyneke Meyer, the former Springboks coach who gave him his Test debut, picked up the phone.

Meyer wanted him for the Asia Pacific Dragons 10s team he was putting together. Then an American team called the Tiger Rugby Club signed him and finally the Bulls knocked on the door.

“You prepare always for a rainy day and sometimes the weather surprises you,” says Hendricks about coming to play in Ireland. He might just as well have been talking about the craziness of his own career.

“I’ve played rugby now for almost 13 years and I’d never won a Currie Cup,” he adds. “Coach Jake [White] always says there’s a lot of players who play their whole lives and never win anything.

“Now, I’ve been fortunate to win a Currie Cup [last year] and now playing in a semi-final in this championship means a lot to me personally. Just to represent this team, which has grown and I’ve grown with the team. I’ve learnt a lot as a player and as a human being.”

The idea that the Bulls are second to Leinster is not something that Hendricks has seriously considered leaving South Africa. He has scored his fair share of tries for the Springboks in matches they have lost, once against the All Blacks team of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter in 2014.

But the mantra from the Bulls this week has been more convincing than just putting up a good performance. Knock-out semi-final rugby changes the dynamic and their claim is that it’s more of a 50:50 game.

“If you leave with that mindset, getting on the plane from South Africa saying ‘listen, we’re going to be second in this game’ it’s the wrong mindset,” he says.

“I’ve already packed two bags, wherever the final is going to be I’m not going home to Pretoria. I’ll either play the final here [in Ireland] against Ulster or in Cape Town. My mindset for this week is not to go into the game and feel like we’re going to lose it.

“So, ja, I’ve packed two bags with extra undies. It’ll be a tight game, the team that makes the right decisions on the day will win. I’m staying. I’ll play the final wherever it is.”

If the Bulls manage to upset the favourites, then they will either travel to Cape Town to take on the Stormers, or make the 100 mile journey north to Belfast to play Ulster, depending on who wins the other semi-final on Saturday.

At 6′ 2′' the man who was once told not to play rugby under any circumstances can sit on the wing or inside centre and popped up with a second-half hat-trick as the Bulls clinched a home final eight fixture with a win over the Ospreys in Swansea at the end of May.

Hendricks also led the match statistics for clean breaks (four), defenders beaten (eight) and metres gained (105), making him that weekend’s captain fantastic. He may be a veteran, but is still giving bang for his buck.

Leinster centres Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, easily among the best pairing in the championship, are on the radar of Hendricks. But he also rates his partner Harold Vorster, which should make for an interesting midfield clash. Both Hendricks and captain Marcel Coetzee spoke this week about slowing down the Leinster tempo to prevent them getting into the fast-paced running game that earned 12 tries against Glasgow last weekend.

“Henshaw and Ringrose are quality players and they have certainly earned respect,” he says. “But we’ve got Harold Vorster. I have a lot of confidence in him and I’m not worried about facing them.”

Why would he not believe. He has beaten worse odds before.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times