Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Cornal Hendricks already knows a thing or two about reinvention … perhaps there’s another one ahead for him in the 2020 rugby season as he has a crack out of his most natural habitat on SuperHero Sunday for the Bulls.
The predatory former Springbok wing, who grabbed five tries in a dozen Tests under Heyneke Meyer’s tenure between 2014 and 2015, disappeared into the rugby wilderness and seemed destined not to return after the revelation of a complex heart condition soon after that green-and-gold stint.
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But the tenacious, Cape winelands-born customer resurfaced successfully and against the odds after a lengthy gap for the Bulls in Super Rugby 2019, where he made 14 appearances and weighed in with five tries en route to the franchise being second-placed and premier, strictly domestic team in the SA conference behind the Jaguares.
Hendricks was in the No 14 jersey when the Bulls bowed out – not without an admirable fight – at the quarter-final stage against the Hurricanes in their “Cake Tin”.
That was also a match (won 35-28 by the ‘Canes) where stalwart Bok outside centre Jesse Kriel made a return after several weeks side-lined by an ankle injury.
It also ended up being his swansong for the Loftus-based side, given their exit at that phase, after a valued five-year career on their books at Super Rugby level – remember that Kriel is not quite 26 yet, so arguably just approaching the peak of his career and a significant surrender now to Japanese climes with Canon Eagles.
The 1.86m chunk of muscle is the second world-class and still relatively youthful No 13 to quit the Bulls in the space of some three years, after co-Bok Jan Serfontein (comfortable in both centre berths) chose to go to French-based Montpellier in 2017.
Little wonder, then, that Bulls head coach Pote Human is prepared to turn a little daring and imaginative in his bid to shore up the outside channel sufficiently this year; earlier this week he named Hendricks in the jersey for the SuperHero Sunday tussle at FNB Stadium on Sunday with the Lions.
He partners the Bulls’ captain, Burger Odendaal, against the Highveld neighbours.
It is difficult to recall any significant exposure for Hendricks away from a wing slot in his first-class career to this point, so the move can safely be branded “experimental”.
But if it pays dividends, the Bulls – much changed in various other positions this year – should feel they are some way to reassembling an acceptably competitive backline when Super Rugby-proper kicks off at the end of the month.
As he is near his 32nd birthday, perhaps Human figures that Hendricks, who is strong on his feet, steps well at times and has a keen eye for a gap, will only drop in outright pace from here onward in his eventful career, so a slight shift infield could be the correct medicine.
If it does become a more routine hallmark, he would be emulating in many ways the case of RWC 2007-winning former right wing ace JP Pietersen, who in more recent, twilight-era times has seen regular service at outside centre in his return to Durban.
Johnny Kotze, another versatile player between wing and centre, wears No 14 for the Bulls on Sunday and, as one who plays with more heart and “grunt” than any special subtlety, he may be better equipped to occupy the more touchline-patrolling slot.
There has also been keen speculation from some experts in recent seasons that exciting fullback Warrick Gelant is more than capable of making a fist of No 13 with his elusiveness-driven attributes.
But Gelant remains the most attractive Bulls option in his favoured last-line-of-defence berth, and stays a reasonably compelling candidate – especially if he puts injury setbacks firmly behind him – at the age of only 24 to eventually succeed talisman Willie le Roux (now 30) as first-choice Springbok fullback.
Hendricks has been through an emotional wringer in his rugby career: he is unlikely to be too rattled by the prospect of being a fish swimming in slightly different waters at FNB Stadium.
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15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Johnny Kotze, 13 Cornal Hendricks, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain), 11 Rosko Specman, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Muller Uys, 6 Wian Vosloo, 5 Juandre Kruger, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Simphiwe Matanzima
Substitutes: 16 Johan Grobbelaar, 17 Gerhard Steenekamp, 18 Mornay Smith, 19 Ryno Pieterse, 20. Ruan Nortje/Jean Droste, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Chris Smith, 23 Divan Rossouw, 24 Dylan Sage, 25 Manie Libbok, 26 Jeandre Rudolph, 27 Abongile Nonkontwana, 28 Tim Agaba