A dream was birthed at the age of nine when Cornal Hendricks played his very first rugby game for Wellington Primary. “It has ever since been my dream to play for the Springboks.” Says Hendricks. As a nine year old boy, you understand that your dream of playing for your country’s senior national team will not be reached over night. There are many hurdles which you first have to jump, a ladder to climb and ranks to move through. However, that nine year old boy somehow never found that ladder to climb. As a schoolboy rugby player, He never once received provincial colours. The hope of one day playing for the Springboks was never fueled in that way.
“Many people has said to me that I won’t make it but I never stopped believing in myself and I NEVER gave up on my dream.”
I asked Cornal what it took to keep the dream alive when small goals were not reached. “You have to protect the dream”
“Work harder than the normal person, give up the things that does not add to your life such as clubbing and drinking, especially on school level, and eat healthy… Even when it rained I was out on the road jogging at 5am… My determination kept my dream alive. I may not have been able to tick the accolades but I ticked my gym and training sessions, as well as my diet plan. I stayed disciplined”
Cornal was determined to keep on pursuing his dream despite the disappointment of not being recognised as a rugby player on school level. He went on to play club rugby for Roses United in Wellington and it was during those years when Boland Rugby noticed something special in Cornal. In 2007 he was invited to be part of the Boland Academy Rugby House.
“I learned discipline at the Academy House. I came late frequently… they struggled for more than a month to teach me the small general disciplines. I also learned communication skills, to be independent, to work hard and to persevere when times were tough… Coach Louis Koen wasn’t just a coach who cared about your rugby, he cared about you as a person and I valued him valuing me.”
Cornal soaked up all he could while he was at the Academy House. He worked hard and in a few months he was promoted to the Boland Currie Cup team. During 2010, he also represented Boland in the sevens competition and made his mark during a National tournament where he was named player of the tournament. This award grabbed the attention of the SA 7’s selectors and consequently Cornal was asked to join the Blitzbokke training camp in 2011.
Being called-up to join the National 7’s team felt like the dream was one step ahead. However, the obstacles seemed to become bigger than ever before. Cornal was sent back several times to go and work on improving his skills and technique. He edged closer to representing his country but it seemed that the closer he got, the more mountains that needed conquering appeared…
Cornal was back in the Boland camp and in 2011 they won the first division Currie Cup. Selectors take note of winning teams. The win shined a spotlight on Cornal and in that same year he was back in the SA 7’s camp. He made his first appearance for the Blitzbokke in 2012. Cornal represented his country as a sevens rugby player for two years. One can almost conclude that this was a dream come true. Yet, for Cornal it only felt as a stepping stone, a fire was set to his dream, the flames were fuelled but the dream was not yet reached. He wanted to play for the Springboks!! That was the dream!!
When a player is contracted with the 7’s team he is automatically made unavailable for selection for the Springbok team. He stood at that crossroad starring at his dream of playing for the Springboks and acknowledging a great opportunity to be able to represent his country as part of the sevens team. He was offered another two year contract with the Blitzbokke but the passion to see his dream of playing for the Springboks overshadowed any reasoning. He made the decision to not take the 7’s contract and signed with the Cheetahs for the 2014 season. Cornal knew that this was make or break. “I knew I had to give it my all because if I will not make it, I lost out on an opportunity to play sevens rugby.”
“I come from a previously disadvantaged community where many kids have already given up on their dreams… I am there to give hope for many of the young people from my community. Giving up was therefore never an option.”
Playing for the Cheetahs in the Super Rugby competition wasn’t always easy. There were many occasions when he had to sit on the bench and maybe work twice as hard as others to see this dream come true. “I put my goals on my wall and reminded myself daily of my dream to become a Springbok.”
On 14 June 2014, Cornal made his debut for the Springboks in Durban playing against Wales. For Cornal, the highlight of that game was scoring his very first try for his country. The long awaited moment finally arrived!!
Cornal’s grandmother past away in the week before his debut match. A bitter sweet week emotionally stored in his treasure case of memories. In his heart, he dedicated his first try to his grandmother. It was a thank you gift for her countless support and belief that she demonstrated in so many ways throughout the years. Cornal values his family and acknowledges their support as a contributing factor to his success. “The sacrifices made by my mother cannot be fathomed, she is by far my biggest hero.”
The dream of becoming a Springbok rugby player is only halfway reached.
“You have to keep on dreaming… I have achieved my dream of playing for the Springboks but that cannot be the end… I have set new goals one of which is to represent my country in the 2015 Rugby World Cup as well as to be part of the 2016 Olympic team.”
He did not make the final World Cup side but fortunately there will be many more World Cup teams to be part of, he is still young.
My coffee with Cornal was very special. The reason why it was particularly encouraging and inspirational to myself might have to do with the fact that Cornal and I have many things in common. He literally live around the corner from my mother’s house where I grew up. I can relate with ‘not having an option of throwing in the towel.’ I was also raised by a single parent as in his case. Consequently my grandmother also played a huge role in my upbringing and believe it or not, two months before I scored my first Protea game, my grandmother passed away. She was the one who taught me to appreciate sport and specifically cricket. Well, keeping score for the Proteas wasn’t much of an achievement compared to Cornal’s first try for the Springboks. Nevertheless, I do think that to a degree I could associate with that bitter sweet feeling. His story spoke to me and encouraged me to protect my dream, for inside my little heart are plenty of dreams yet to be reached.
By the end of our conversation I asked him to describe himself twenty years from now when he will not be a rugby player anymore and has hopefully reached all his rugby goals. “Twenty years from now I will be 42 years old. I will be a successful business man… the head coach of Boland…a father and husband and a Godly man… I believe in God and I build everything around Him.”
I then asked him if he had a personal relationship with God. He opened up and told me a version of his rugby story that he has never shared publicly before. “I have never told the story but I always wanted to share it, maybe in a church.”
Cornal shared the most beautiful story likened to that of Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel. “I have learned to never make a deal with God…nevertheless, I had a difficult career, there were many obstacles… So one day in church I said to the Lord: ‘God, if you make me a Springbok, I will commit my life to You.’
God heard him just like He heard Hannah. The agreement he made with God lingered in his heart. After his second game for the Springboks against the Lions in Johannesburg, Cornal decided to follow through with his commitment. He traveled to Wellington after the game. He knew that Wellington was home and it was there where close friends would keep him accountable to his decision. Growing up, he was spiritually inspired by the Boland Kaveliers captain Franzel September. Cornal saw Franzel as an older brother and an example of a follower of Christ. Franzel together with his pastor led Cornal in a salvation prayer and Cornal committed his life to God.
“I am not perfect, I make mistakes and I will always make mistakes… I learned a lot through my bible study group in the Free State and have experienced healing miracles. I once had a hamstring injury. We prayed on the Wednesday evening for its healing and on the Saturday the pain was gone, it felt like a new hamstring.”
There are many times in one’s life when you feel like you are so close to achieving your dreams or living the life you desire to live. To your surprise it appears that life is playing tricks on you and you feel even further away from achieving your dreams than you have before. There will always be obstacles and sacrifices that needs to be made. Sometimes people may even laugh at your dreams. Cornal’s story inspires us to push through the difficult times, to make the sacrifices and to never give up. His story also translates to a story of grace- When it seems as if your back’s against the wall, God still has your back. What matters to you, matters to Him.
Protect your dream!!