There are many reasons why sport captures the imagination of the public but none do so more than your classic Cinderella story. The type of story that can inspire your everyday man. One that includes getting back up, when no one expected you to do so. And that is exactly what Currie Cup Champion Cornal Hendricks has done, and more.
A 12-test cap Springbok, Hendricks enjoyed a late yet rapid rise to the top of South African rugby and even quicker fall from grace thereafter.
Straight out of school, Hendricks was part of the Boland Cavaliers squad that played in the Currie Cup - often turning out in the second division of the tournament - making his debut in 2008. It would take five years at Boland for the speedster to catch the eye with former South African Sevens coach Paul Treu providing Hendricks with his opportunity. One he seized with both hands.
Hendricks lit up the World Sevens Circuit scoring 61 tries in 82 matches between 2012 and 2014 with his form finally attracting the interest of a Super Rugby team, the Cheetahs.
At the age of 25, Hendricks made his long-awaited and well deserved Super Rugby debut and did not disappoint as he scored his first try in the 49th minute against the Lions.
2014 proved to be a breakthrough year for the hot stepping winger who featured in all of the Cheetahs games until June when he would be named in the Springbok squad and make his first appearance for his country against a World XV side.
A full test debut followed soon after as Heyeneke Meyer rewarded Hendricks' form with a start on his test debut against Wales. Once again, he rose to the occasion scoring a try, again assisted by Willie Le Roux, on his debut as South Africa claimed a 38-16 win in Durban.
2015 saw Hendricks hit some of the best form of his career as focused turned to the Rugby World Cup in England as well as the 2016 Olympics with the Blitzboks. During his time with Boland, his form was ignored by Stormers coach Allister Coetzee and in 2015 it seemed as if his career would come full circle as he finally signed a deal with the Stormers.
However, his career would come to a complete halt after earning his 12 test caps for the Boks. A sudden heart condition meant that he was unable to play, and he never donned the Stormers or WP jersey, missed the Rugby World Cup and Olympics. He was forced to put his career on hold with a deal with Toulon also cancelled.
Despite his condition, Hendricks remained positive telling EWN in 2016: "I am not going to retire now, I'm still going to play a lot of rugby."
"There is still plenty of rugby inside of me, I still want to play for a very long time."
He was not wrong. After three years out of elite-level rugby, he fought his way back to the top and earned a Super Rugby contract with the Bulls in 2019.
"Those were unbelievably dark days. I had played for the BlitzBokke 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 putting in had no purpose."
The speedster believed he could play top-level rugby again and upon his return to Super Rugby with the Bulls, he revealed the support he received from the man who handed him his first test cap, Heyneke Meyer.
"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."
His return to Super Rugby was far from just filling up the Bulls rooster as he went on to make 14 appearances for the side in his first season back scoring five tries on the wing, including a brace in the quarter-final loss to the Hurricanes which led to calls him to get a test recall ahead of the Rugby World Cup. This did not materialize for Hendricks but the same calls have arisen recently.
The 2020 Super Rugby season saw Hendricks feature in 5 of the Bulls 6 Super Rugby games scoring twice off the wing before the competition was brought to halt because of the coronavirus pandemic.
During lockdown in South Africa, the Bulls announced the arrival of Jake White as the side's new Director of Rugby. A move that would not only kick start a winning year for the Bulls but provide Hendricks with another career-defining opportunity.
With White at the helm, there was a lot of change at the Bulls with a number of players joining and departing the franchise but for Hendricks, there was a positional switch.
Hendricks played his entire Super Rugby and test career on the wing but at the age of 32 he started for the first time in the centre for the Bulls in White's first game in charge. While Hendricks did play outside centre for Boland, the move to the #12 jersey was somewhat foreign to him but again he rose to the occasion and thrived. The Bulls won their first match with Hendricks in the #12 jersey thumping the Sharks 49-28 at Loftus to kick start a stellar year.
On Saturday Hendricks completed the latest chapter of his story as the Bulls were crowned Currie Cup champions, ending an 11-year wait for the trophy, with Hendricks again starring as he was named man of the match in the extra-time 26-19 triumph over the Sharks.
“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 said in a post-match TV interview.
White, the former World Cup-winning coach, 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," White 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."
White is not wrong with Hendricks shining in both the semi-final and the final of the Currie Cup beating 11 defenders and making over 60 running metres in the two matches combined.
A recall to the Springbok squad would certainly we the icing on the cake for Hendricks especially with the British and Irish Lions Tour set to take place this year. But the fact that he has not only able to take to the field but thrive at an elite level in a new position is enough of a Cinderella story to inspire.