Bok proves dreams of Peyton Place can become real

Poor background: Peyton Place is not the kind of place where talent scouts go looking. (David Harrison)

Poor background: Peyton Place is not the kind of place where talent scouts go looking. (David Harrison)

It’s a rainy Friday in August. Rachel Hendricks looks around her. Her eyes take in the small lounge of her renovated municipal house.
Her eyes then wander over her neighbourhood, as she muses that Peyton Place in Wellington is one of the poorest townships in the Boland and the most unlikely place for sports diamonds to be found.

Townships such as hers are infamous for the layers of poverty that cover them. For some in these townships, the road from a mother’s womb winds its way through drugs such as tik, a community destroyer that strangles the lives of so many young people, through teenage pregnancies, unemployment, gangsterism and prison, to an early death. It’s not unusual to know who the local drug merchant is, or who has been in jail or has been assaulted or robbed.

It’s a hard life. Some call it the coloured life. Yes, even in the new South Africa those who were classified coloured by the apartheid rulers are still referred to as coloured – in other words, not African, according to the government.

Theirs is a world where strong women raise their families in the absence of their men, and where steely determination and tough love can help to stop the process of potential never being fulfilled.

This is an environment hardly known to rugby talent scouts, who concentrate their dig for flair on the fields of the traditional posh rugby-playing schools, such as nearby Paarl Boys’ High or Paarl Gymnasium.

The focus on these schools is understandable because young men who dream of wearing the green and gold Springbok jersey know that their journey to the top is made much less arduous if they pass through them. These schools invest in rugby and pride themselves on the number of Springboks who had once worn their school blazers.

Springbok captain Jean de Villiers is a product of this elite system. He is a former Gymnasium schoolboy star who went to study at the University of Stellenbosch and play for Western Province.

The annual derby match between Boys’ High and the Gymnasium is royally covered, even by the national news media. The same can’t be said of matches on the other side of the Boland, where they experience squalor, crime and overcrowded classrooms. The odds of wearing that coveted green and gold seem stacked against them.

What gives them hope? What unites Peyton Place? For the people here, it is the sight of Cornal Hendricks, one of their own, carrying their hopes, dreams, pride and good wishes as he smashes the obstacles placed in his way, reminding the country of the talent in his community.

Cornal Hendricks of the Springboks dodges the All Blacks' Israel Dagg
Cornal Hendricks of the Springboks dodges the All Blacks’ Israel Dagg during the recent Rugby Championship fixture in Wellington. His awesome talent belies his humble beginnings.

Neither a product of affirmative action in sport nor of a former Model C school, he comes from the local Berg River High School in Wellington, a place where the school fees are a humble R850 this year. Ask around in the community and it is clear that this school is a respected and beloved institution. His older brother, Clinton, is head of the parent-teacher association at the school.

His mother Rachel, even if she had wanted to, could not have afforded to send Cornal to either Boys’ High or Paarl Gym. This year the school fees at the former were R21 000. At the Gymnasium, they totalled R19 000.

Cornal is the youngest of four children – two boys and two girls – raised by Rachel. She counts a stint as a “general worker”, a euphemism for tea girl, among the many jobs she has had. She also adopted another child, who is at a special-needs school and has been part of the family since she was 15 months old.

“We’re a sports family,” Rachel said. “I played netball and Cornal’s father, Colin, was a rugby player. We were divorced when Cornal was a 12-year-old and just starting to play rugby.

“The divorce was hard on him and he missed his father. Financially his father supported us. He also went to watch his son play. But I was the one who had to walk to the rugby field with him. Those times were not easy.

“Things improved when my daughter Alida, a school teacher, bought a car.”

Remarkable recors
Cornal’s record is remarkable: he has won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and was the 2013 South African Rugby Sevens player of the year. Only 26, he has played seven games for the Springboks and has scored five tries. He has raced across the try line against the All Blacks, Australia, Wales and Argentina. He marked his first official Test with a try against Wales. On his way to that Springbok jersey, Cornal signed for the Free State Cheetahs and left home for Bloemfontein.

“I worried about him. I used to make his breakfast and lunch and pack his clothes when he went way. I used to lie awake at night, wondering who was going to do this now and if he was eating properly. Who was doing his laundry? He assured me that he was coping. But I was still worried. I’m a mother.”

How has life changed for him and his family?

“Suddenly people stop you in the street to talk to you. I’m proud of him. Being a Springbok has not gone to his head; he remains humble, the way I taught him to be. When he hears about people struggling to hold head above water, he will quietly go to them and help where he can.”

Anchored in life by her Christian faith, Rachel has also seen her older son, Clinton, headed for rugby glory. But then a broken ankle ended his promising career and the young man fell into depression and drug abuse.

But he conquered that pit and today is another beacon of hope in Peyton Place.

Like his siblings and their determined mother, Cornal is testament to the fact that adversity can be overcome and that there is no substitute for talent. In the hard world of Test rugby, he is making his mark not because of quotas or a need by some to see more faces that are not white in the national side, but because he is a real sports diamond.

This weekend, he’ll play against the Wallabies at Newlands. No doubt Peyton Place will be rooting for him.

But it seems unfair for a young man just starting out on his international career to carry the hopes, aspirations and dreams of people still called coloured in the new South Africa. He should be a torchbearer for all South Africans, but that’s probably a dream for another political era.

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