Kurt-Lee Arendse’s struggles in ‘Chasing The Sun’ should not happen again in SA rugby

Kurt-Lee Arendse holds off French centre Gael Fickou as Jonathan Danty (left) and Damian Penaud close in during last year’s World Cup quarter-final in Paris. Photo: BackpagePix

Kurt-Lee Arendse holds off French centre Gael Fickou as Jonathan Danty (left) and Damian Penaud close in during last year’s World Cup quarter-final in Paris. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Apr 10, 2024


Episode 3 of the Chasing The Sun 2 – which looks back at the Springboks’ 2023 Rugby World Cup triumph – will be remembered by many for the big reality check that Rassie Erasmus gave some of his star players.

Last Sunday’s episode on M-Net and SuperSport focused on the Bok boss laying down the law to the players after the 13-8 defeat to Ireland in the pool stages.

The F-bombs flowed as Erasmus showed his players where they had gone wrong against Ireland, and then he mentioned only a handful of players who should get ready for the quarter-finals. That didn’t include captain Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth, who both expressed their shock as they realised they needed to prove themselves against Tonga.

There was also the brewing friction between Kolisi, Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen about the direction of the team and their leadership styles, and Erasmus told the trio to sort things out in a room for 15 minutes and present a united front afterwards.

Cheslin Kolbe’s memorable charge-down of Thomas Ramos’ conversion featured as well, with the Springbok flyer explaining how he studied his former Toulouse teammate’s kicking routine to the second to make the charge-down possible.

But for me, the most remarkable part of episode 3 was the back story of Kurt-Lee Arendse’s rise to prominence.

Arendse has been a revelation in the Bok team since making his debut against Wales in Bloemfontein in 2022, and has continued to the present day, where he is starring for the Bulls in the URC and Champions Cup as well.

The speedster from Paarl in the Western Cape, though, nearly missed out on top-flight rugby.

While we all know his incredible journey from playing Varsity Shield rugby for the University of the Western Cape to Springbok star, the hardships he endured to get there was showcased in Chasing The Sun 2.

Having played provincial junior rugby for Boland and Western Province, Arendse – who attended Paulus Joubert Secondary School in Paarl – said on episode 3 that he had been told he would be contracted to the Boland Cavaliers senior team.

“Didn’t make it ... I was devastated. So I decided, let me go work. I started working at the butchery.”

The next shot is of Brito’s Meat Centre in Paarl, where Arendse started working.

“I still wanted to play rugby, and my grandmother was the person who believed in me, even though sometimes I didn’t believe in myself. She came to me and said, ‘Listen my child, soon someone will see you’,” he said.

“Every day after work I would go to the gym, put in the work just to prepare myself (thinking) if I get an opportunity, I will be right for that moment.”

Arendse then visits his school and old workplace, where he received a hero’s welcome.

“Rugby has changed my life completely,” he said.

After missing out on the Boland senior contract, Arendse joined Chester Williams’ UWC team in 2017, when they won the Varsity Shield – and he was the player of the tournament.

More Varsity Shield in 2018 and Varsity Cup in 2019 followed, before he was recruited by Neil Powell for the Blitzboks squad for the World Rugby Sevens Series, and he was part of the SA Tokyo Olympics group in 2021.

But when Covid-19 struck and cancelled the sevens circuit in 2020, Jake White had seen enough and became the first major franchise to sign Arendse, who excelled in that Currie Cup and has been a mainstay of the Pretoria side ever since – he also signed a contract extension last year to June 2026.

Add in 13 tries in 15 Bok Tests, and Arendse has become a true superstar of South African rugby.

Now, how many other Kurt-Lee Arendses are out there who may not have had the support, drive or commitment that he displayed to become a world-class wing?

But his struggles should not be in vain. His battle to get a senior provincial contract should not have happened, and must not happen to future junior stars from difficult circumstances – who may live in an impoverished area and not attend the ‘right’ school but who are clearly good enough for the big time.

Arendse will turn 28 five days before the Boks’ first Test of 2024 against Wales at Twickenham on June 22, yet he only has 15 caps for the national team.

Imagine where he could have been and what his record would have been like if he had been given an opportunity earlier in his career?

A similar thing happened to Makazole Mapimpi, who had been scoring tries for fun for Border, the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs, but only got a Bok call-up when he had moved to the Sharks at the age of 27 – in the 2018 June Test against Wales in Washington.

Mapimpi has scored 26 tries in 41 Tests, which gives him the highest average among the top-10 Bok leading try-scorers of all time at 0.63 per game or 63.4%, with Bryan Habana’s remarkable 67 in 124 games putting him at 0.53 or 54%.

So, let’s hope that Arendse keeps ‘Chasing The Sun’ for another four years to the 2027 Rugby World Cup in Australia...