Two South African midfield veterans, playing for two different teams, on two different days in the heart of Welsh regional rugby took their teams one step closer to the United Rugby Championship’s big play-off dance, scheduled for 18th June.
For now DHL Stormers Ruhan Nel and Vodacom Bulls Cornal Hendricks individually produced the type of performance that ensured their teams both host a home play-off in the inaugural league season.
The United Rugby Championship, over the course of 18 rounds, has produced some of the most wonderful individual displays. Young players have come to the fore and players, previously not that well known in foreign territories, are now the talk of the league.
Nel and Hendricks have walked a different path to be a part of the historic first season of the United Rugby Championship, but in Wales on a Friday night and Saturday afternoon, the duo knew only one path, and that was straight to the tryline.
The contrasts in occasion and environment were indicative of their contrasting careers. The Vodacom Bulls were playing against the Ospreys in Swansea on Friday night and the DHL Stormers took on the Scarlets in Llanelli in blazing afternoon sunshine. The Vodacom Bulls were playing for a bonus-point win to make the top four and the DHL Stormers were playing for a bonus point win to make the top two. Both were playing to be SA’s Shield winners.
Nel, having made 147 appearances for the South African Blitzboks between 2014 and 2018, hasn’t had the most comfortable of transitions to XVs but in his 19th match for the DHL Stormers he scored easily the most significant try of his career, powering over in the final play of the game.
It was the score that ensured his team plays the quarter-final (against Edinburgh) at DHL Stadium in Cape Town and it was the try that won his team the inaugural SA League Shield and guaranteed them a place in next season’s Champions Cup.
Never has a five-pointer meant so much, in every sense, for the DHL Stormers this season.
Hendricks, whose return to rugby at the Vodacom Bulls has defied all medical opinion, bulldozed his way to a hat trick of tries in the most dramatic fashion.
Hendricks, who played 12 Tests for the Springboks between 2014 and 2015, was in 2016 told he would never play the game again because of a hereditary heart condition. For three years, he tried to convince professional teams that he was healthy enough to play. None would risk it and Hendricks returned to his home province Boland and invested his time in playing club rugby and launching a foundation, with the pillars that speak of hope, inspiration and dreams.
‘I want to build and strengthen future communities by encouraging, empowering and enabling young people to become the best version of themselves,’ said Hendricks.
Hendricks, 34 years-old, has been true to his foundation’s mantra in that he continues to dream, inspire and empower those around him.
Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White, when he picked Hendricks in 2019, said his team of experts were comfortable that there would be no risk to Hendricks and that the player was still good enough to play professionally.
Hendricks has played 53 times since White took a punt on the strength of his heart, won two domestic titles and been one of the standouts in this season’s United Rugby Championship while also playing in the Currie Cup.
White has consistently lauded the qualities of Hendricks as a person and a player. So too has Dobson when it comes to the squad value of Nel.
In Wales, in the final round of league action, both players showed that the Vodacom United Rugby Championship is not a playground exclusive to youngsters. It is also the place where veterans can dare dream.