Kurt-Lee Arendse has to pinch himself to make sure he’s awake. It’s been 12 months since he made his debut for the Springboks, and over eight Tests the elusive winger has scored 10 tries.
He admits that the dream of representing his country in the 15-strong canon has come true faster than expected. Not long ago, Arendse failed to win a professional contract after graduating from high school. He was overlooked by Universities before eventually getting a chance with the University of the Western Cape in the 2019 Varsity Cup.
Then came the Blitzboks in 2020, and a few months later, the Bulls offered him a life-changing opportunity. Bock’s coach, Jack Nenaber, was also involved, and together the various parties formulated a plan to develop the next South African star of rugby.
Two years later, Arendse scored seven tries in his rookie season with the Boks. Most recently, he was backed up to start the opening match of the 2023 Rugby Championship against the Wallabies and went on to score a hat-trick in South Africa’s 43-12 win.
The Boks already boast World Cup winning wingers Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe in their ranks. However, Nenaber looks set to include Arendsi in his 33-man squad for the World Cup in France later this year.
superhero origin story
Like Kolbe, Arendse is a product of the South African Sevens system. When asked about his work ethic and finishing abilities, as well as the tackle pieces that have become his trademark, he routinely credits Blitzboks coaches, as well as a program that focuses on individual skill development.
The Bulls and Boks coaching teams certainly played their part in launching Arendse’s career at 15. However, the superhero’s origin story began at Blitzboks HQ in Stellenbosch four years ago. At the time, the cash-strapped Arendse did not have a car and had to take a train for group training.
“To be honest, I didn’t think all of this would come to me so quickly,” Arendse said sweetly in the run-up to the 2023 test season.
“But if you get your chance, take it. It was special to make my Test debut last year and the aim from now on is to keep playing good rugby.
I put myself in difficult situations
He added, “The sevens system helped me develop as a player, especially in defence.” “I spent a lot of time individually preparing, putting myself in difficult situations. As a result, I improved a lot.”
said Marius Schoemann, manager of the South African High Performance Team Sevens Daily Maverick That the success of Arendse must be seen as the success of the Sevens system.
While Schumann would have liked to keep the likes of Colby, Quagga-Smith, Arendse and others to the Blitzboks, he is happy to see these players excel in the 15-man national team.
“We’re always happy to see one of our former players do so well – especially for a guy like Kurt, who’s so humble and hard-working. He deserves all the success that comes his way,” says Schumann.
A relatively recent development in South African rugby has been the realization that men of Kolbe and Arendse’s relatively modest size can make a huge impact on the professional stage. Some of the little wonders that have dazzled the Blitzboks in recent years have continued to represent various counties and franchises.
“Rohan Neal and Sybilo Sinatella were standouts on the successful Stormers team. They both started in our system,” notes Schoemann.
“JC Pretorius has joined the Lions and Muller du Plessis the Sharks. Lubabalo Dobela has made an impact on the Griquas this season, and Andrew Jota has represented the Pumas in the Currie Cup final.”
Schumann explains what young players can gain from setting sevens and how the skills learned can be transferred to a 15-player code later in their careers.
“Right now you see players go straight from Craven Week into the county under-19 kits once they finish school. In terms of long-term development, those who have left school will be better served by spending six to 12 months on our programme.
“During that transition period, they will be exposed to a proper conditioning programme, as well as developing individual skills. Curt and Cheslin didn’t have professional contracts when they left school, so they came to us for an opportunity. The bottom line is that they have more opportunity to hone their skills.”
“We went to Craven Week recently and saw a lot of great players, but we also noticed their individual weaknesses. These rising stars could benefit from time with us after they complete their education.
“We’re talking to the unions now about how to get the best out of the players,” continues Schumann. “Some of them are keen for us to develop youngsters in the Sevens Program, and then bring them back into the union after three years. It’s a position that could be mutually beneficial.”
The Blitzboks won back-to-back World Rugby Sevens in 2017 and 2018. However, the Post-Covid side has struggled to reach the same heights.
While the drive to develop players for franchises and the national team is commendable, one wonders what the Sevens might achieve if it retained more players of Kolbe and Arendse’s caliber.
“If you regularly lose players of this caliber, it’s very difficult,” Schumann admits. “If we lose three players a year in franchises, that’s already half of the starting group. But we know the Springboks are the leaders, and at the end of the day we’re all working together for the SA rugby brand.
“We also understand that players go to 15 for the sake of financial security. They need to think about maximizing their playing and earning opportunities in a short professional career.”
Hit defenders in a small space
When a Kolbe or Arendse arrives in South Africa, people often ask how they gained the ability to beat so many defenders in such a small space. When the stars of the audition tell their stories, they put The Sevens Show back in the spotlight.
And when they are in close proximity to the Blitzboks’ base in Stellenbosch, they always show respect to them.
“We’ve had a Quagga here recently, and so has Kurt,” Schumann says. “We always talk about the culture of the Seven and the family, and how that connection has never been broken.
“It’s all about what’s best for the player. We’re excited about what’s next for Kurt… What we saw last year and what we saw at Loftus is only the beginning.
“It has created a headache for the Bock coaches now. There are a lot of classy wingers in this side, but Kurt is pushing for starting opportunities. It’s a great situation.” DM
This article first appeared in The Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication DM168 and is available nationwide for R29.