Blitzboks gave humble new hero Kurt-Lee his tackling skills
The diminutive Bok winger is another product of the South African Sevens programme.
Kurt-Lee Arendse has to pinch himself to check he is awake. It has been 12 months since he made his debut for the Springboks and, over the course of eight Tests, the elusive winger has scored 10 tries.
He admits the dream to represent his country in the 15-man code has been realised quicker 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 the Blitzboks came calling in 2020, and, a few months later, the Bulls offered him a life-changing opportunity. Bok coach Jacques Nienaber got involved, too, and together the various parties formulated a plan to develop South African rugby’s next superstar.
Two years later, Arendse scored seven tries in his rookie season with the Boks. More recently, he was backed to start in the 2023 Rugby Championship opener against the Wallabies and went on to score a hat-trick in South Africa’s 43-12 victory.
The Boks already boast World Cup-winning wingers Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe in their ranks. Nevertheless, Nienaber looks set to include Arendse 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 chop tackle that has become his trademark, he routinely credits the Blitzboks coaches, as well as a programme that places an emphasis on one-on-one skills development.
The Bulls and Boks coaching teams have certainly played their part in launching Arendse’s 15s career. The superhero origin story, however, began at Blitzboks HQ in Stellenbosch four years ago. Back then, cash-strapped Arendse didn’t own a car and had to catch a train to team practices.
“To be honest, I didn’t think all of this was going to come to me this quickly,” the softly spoken Arendse said in the lead-up to the 2023 Test season.
“But if you get your opportunity, you must take it. It was special to make my Test debut last year, and the goal from here on in is to keep playing good rugby.
‘Putting myself in difficult situations’
“The sevens system helped me grow as a player, especially on defence,” he added. “I spent a lot of time on one-on-one preparation, and putting myself in difficult situations. As a result, I improved a lot.”
Marius Schoeman, the South African Sevens high-performance manager, told Daily Maverick that Arendse’s success should be seen as a success for the sevens system.
While Schoeman would have loved to retain the likes of Kolbe, Kwagga Smith, Arendse and others at the Blitzboks, he’s pleased to see these players excelling for the national 15-man side.
“We’re always happy to see one of our former players doing well – and especially for a guy like Kurt ,who is just so humble and hard-working. He deserves all the success that comes his way,” Schoeman says.
A relatively recent development in South African rugby has been the realisation that men of Kolbe and Arendse’s relatively modest size can make a big impact on the professional stage. Some of the small wonders that have dazzled for the Blitzboks in recent years have gone on to represent various provinces and franchises.
“Ruhan Nel and Seabelo Senatla have been prominent for a successful Stormers side. They both started in our system,” Schoeman points out.
“JC Pretorius has joined the Lions and Muller du Plessis the Sharks. Lubabalo Dobela made an impact for Griquas this season, and Andrew Khota represented the Pumas in the Currie Cup final.”
Schoeman explains what young players stand to gain from the sevens set-up and how skills acquired can be transferred to the 15-man code later in their careers.
“At the moment, you see players going straight from Craven Week into the respective under-19 provincial set-ups once they have finished school. In terms of long-term development, those school-leavers would be better served by spending six to 12 months in our programme.
“During that transition period, they will be exposed to a proper conditioning programme, as well as one-on-one skills development. Kurt and Cheslin didn’t receive pro contracts when they left school, so they came to us for an opportunity. The upshot is they had more of a chance to hone their skills.
“We went to Craven Week recently and saw a lot of brilliant players on display, but we also noted their individual weaknesses. Those rising stars could benefit from time with us after they complete their schooling.
“We’re talking to the unions now about how we can get the best out of players,” Schoeman continues. “Some of them are keen for us to develop the younger guys in the sevens programme, and then give them back to the union three years later. It’s a situation that may be mutually beneficial.”
The Blitzboks won back-to-back World Rugby Sevens titles in 2017 and 2018. Post-Covid, however, they have struggled to hit the same heights.
While the drive to develop players for the franchises and national side is commendable, one wonders what the Sevens team might achieve if it retained more players of Kolbe and Arendse’s calibre.
“If you’re losing players of that quality regularly, it’s incredibly hard,” admits Schoeman. “If we lose three players a year to the franchises, that’s already half of a starting combination. But we know the Springboks are the flagship and, at the end of the day, we’re all working together for the sake of the SA rugby brand.
“We also understand that players go to 15s for financial security. They have to think about maximising opportunity to play and earn in a short professional career.”
Beating defenders in a small space
When Kolbe or Arendse touches down for South Africa, people often ask how they acquired the ability to beat several defenders in a small space. When these Test stars tell their stories, they put the sevens programme back in the spotlight.
And when they’re close to the Blitzboks base in Stellenbosch, they always pop in to pay their respects.
“We had Kwagga in here recently, as well as Kurt,” says Schoeman. “We always speak about the sevens culture and family, and how that connection isn’t 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.
“He’s created a headache for the Bok coaches now. There are so many classy wings in that side, but Kurt is pushing for starting chances. It’s a great situation.” DM
This article first appeared in Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.