Side Entry: Hendricks’ comeback lone ray of sunshine in winter

Simnikiwe Xabanisa
Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Not to put too fine a point on it, South African sport is in an unhappy place at the moment.

A sign of how far gone things are – after the Proteas’ sleepwalk through the Cricket World Cup, Banyana Banyana’s commendable but winless run at their World Cup debut and the Super Rugby franchises flattering to deceive like they have since 2010 – is the fact that, on Friday, we had to outsource all our victory hopes to the Bafana Bafana basket.

The recriminations among the twittering masses – mostly based on race and an almost wilful inability to analyse sport – have found their way on to social media.

As a result, Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow nation” is a bit blue at the minute.

It’s not in our nature to go sifting for positives from the mangled wreck of our hopes, but among the debris there was the kind of ridiculously heart-warming story one hopes will teach our kids how winning shouldn’t be everything.

The most beautiful thing I’ve seen in sport this year has been the smile on Bulls winger Cornal Hendricks’ face throughout the Super Rugby season.

Perhaps in keeping with a man who gets mercilessly teased about his Dad Bod by his team-mates on social media, Hendricks’ story isn’t a sexy one.

It’s a tale told of old-fashioned, not to mention clichéd, values like true grit and determination, and words like blood, sweat and no small amount of tears.

When at his peak in 2015, Hendricks was diagnosed with an undisclosed heart condition that moved his doctors to tell him to retire.

At the time, Hendricks was a Springbok and had just signed to play for the Stormers, so to call the doctors’ decision a blow to the then 27-year-old would be an understatement.

Hendricks’ pain was such that he told SA Rugby Magazine he stopped watching rugby altogether in 2016: “I was in a dark place after the doctors told me my career was over ... I would just curl up in bed and refuse to have contact with the outside world.

“I couldn’t watch rugby in 2016, including when the Blitzboks played at the Olympics. Whenever I tried, I would imagine myself being there and I would cry.”

In the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis, Hendricks had spoken with the typical defiance of one doomed, declaring: “I’m not going to retire. I’m still going to play a lot of rugby.”

As it turns out, his words – thanks to help from his mother Rachel, wife Stephanie, former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and others – proved not to be hollow.

Given that there was no clarity about what was wrong with his heart, how he has been healed is a mystery (Hendricks believes God has done his bidding in that regard).

But once he was cleared to play, he got his chance at the Bulls, one he has taken, ahem, wholeheartedly.

A joker to begin with from his Blitzboks days – apparently he did a fine line in comedy by singing Boys II Men songs for his team-mates, and imitating Aussie and New Zealand accents – he has been at the centre of every prank and ridiculous dance-off doing the rounds at the Bulls.

He has also done his fair bit on the field, scoring five tries through a season in which he first got rid of ring rust, did the dirty work and finally did what he is known for – stepping opponents out of spots as tight as the Zondo commission to score.

Some are talking about how his particular brand of inspiration should be taken back to the Springboks, but in Sbu Nkosi, Cheslin Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi and Aphiwe Dyantyi the Boks have a bruiser, a pocket warrior, a sly fox and a big-game player, respectively (which is everything).

So maybe the thing to do at the moment is to let Hendricks carry on lifting the gloom on our sporting horizon.

. Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa

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