I was so angry for the first year after I was sidelined with a heart condition that I didn’t watch rugby. Eventually, I couldn’t ignore it anymore and, as I’ve been working hard to stay sharp, I’ve actually learnt from the guys playing now because the game has changed a bit.
When I last played for South Africa under Heyneke Meyer, the game plan was different to what it is now. With Heyneke, the back three had to be good in the air, and he believed in a scrumhalf who could kick well from the base and wings who were able to chase those balls and get up in the air to catch them. Coming from SA Sevens, I wasn’t used to high-ball catching and that was a real work-on for me in Super Rugby.
On defence, we used to play with the wing taking the second-last attacker and the fullback was on the last man. Now, the Boks play a defence pattern that uses the wings to shoot out of the line onto the second- or third-last attacker. From my point of view, it’s very dangerous to defend like that, especially against teams like New Zealand that can exploit that situation.
The Bok wings are very good finishers and they can tackle, but they’re often out of position on defence and they have also struggled with individual high-ball catching. England saw that and they went with a few high balls against us at Twickenham. Sbu Nkosi did okay to handle those, but Aphiwe Dyantyi must improve there because if a team has a weakness in a Test match, the opposition will find it and target it.
The positive is that both of those wings know where the tryline is and that makes them especially dangerous playing outside Willie le Roux. I’ve played rugby with Willie since Boland U19 days, and he’s a great creator who makes space for the wings to score. But we shouldn’t only rely on Willie to create those opportunities out wide, the wings need to work harder off the ball.
During my time away from the game I coached a little bit at a high school and I worked with the wings to recognize that most of the space on the field is inside the centres and the flyhalf. If you are a smart wing, and you follow up on the inside of those guys, you’re often going to find space.
I’ve been following Rabz Maxwane, the Free State wing, and he scores a lot of tries because he’s got a massive work rate. That’s something I think the Bok wings can get better at.
I don’t know the Bok game plan, but the wings would be more effective in the wide channels if the centres gave the ball more air – our centre-combination doesn’t do a lot to create space for the finishers and it doesn’t matter if you’ve got the best wings in the world if you can’t put them in space.
Having said that, big runners like Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel do create gaps for wings who go looking for work in the middle of the field. Those two centres are big guys and there’s always a good possibility they’ll break the line – the wings must be aware to run off those guys on the inside.
When I played with Willie we had a great bond. I didn’t have to say anything to him when there was a forward in the defensive line in front of me because, for him and I, it was like seeing a big cheeseburger! As a back, those are the mismatches you live for and you have to ask for the ball early so that you can use those opportunities.
But we must be patient. It does take time to build that kind of a relationship to the point where the players trust each other and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Sbu and Aphiwe have the potential to be the Bok wings for the next five to 10 years. They’re very talented and with senior players like Willie around them, that trust will come with time.
What’s important is that they train at a level that is even more intense than a Test match. At the Blitzboks, defence training was the most difficult because you’re usually four-versus-eight. But when we did that training, I made sure to put myself in the middle of the four because that’s where you have to work the hardest.
The Bok wings must put themselves in difficult situations in training so that when it comes to the match they’ve trained for the hardest situation.
I had the same attitude at the Boks. Two days into my first Bok camp and I was running around like a headless chicken, diving for tries on the practice field and training like I was playing against the All Blacks.
I didn’t want to waste any time on the training pitch and one day Bakkies Botha said, “What’s wrong with you – take it easy on the tackle shields!”
I said, “Sorry Oom Bakkies, but it’s been my dream to be here since I was a boy. I have to give it everything I’ve got.”
Hendricks, who played 12 Tests for South Africa between 2014 and 2015 before he was sidelined by a heart condition, has been cleared and will represent the Bulls in 2019. Follow: @CornalHendricks