Chasing the Sun 2: The spirit of Chester Williams lives on in Springboks’ Kurt-Lee Arendse

Springboks wing Kurt-Lee Arendse made a try-saving tackle on the All Blacks’ Rieko Ioane during the 2023 Rugby World Cup final. Picture: Miguel Medina / AFP

Springboks wing Kurt-Lee Arendse made a try-saving tackle on the All Blacks’ Rieko Ioane during the 2023 Rugby World Cup final. Picture: Miguel Medina / AFP

Published Apr 22, 2024


The 80 000-seater Stade de France in Paris, where the Springboks lifted their historic fourth Rugby World Cup title in 2023, is a far cry from the thorny, barren field where their star wing Kurt-Lee Arendse started his rugby journey.

Arendse grew up in the impoverished Lantana neighbourhood in Paarl and attended the Paulus Joubert Secondary School.

Paulus Joubert doesn’t have the state-of-the-art facilities and perfectly manicured lawns that are enjoyed by the well-known Model C schools on the other side of the Berg River, which once divided this beautiful Boland town during Apartheid.

It’s white people to the west and coloured people to the east.

“We used to call our school’s field ‘Thorn Bay’ because of all the thorns on the field. During the drought that hit the Western Cape a few years back we called ‘Sand Bay’. But now it’s lush and we call it ‘Covid Bay’ after we couldn’t use it for rugby for a few years!” said Athol Ontong, Arendse’s former rugby master at at the school

“Arendse was at school during the ‘Thorn Bay’ era and we often joke that he learned to do his magical sidesteps on the field to avoid the thorns!”

But “Thorn Bay” is where this Arendse’s talents were first discovered, a rough diamond who would soon be polished by an iconic Springbok who grew up not too far from Arendse’s family home.

The late Chester Williams, the first black man to play for post-Apartheid Springboks and who won the World Cup with South Africa in 1995, was blown away by Arendse’s ability for the Boland Academy side during one of SA Rugby’s youth weeks.

Williams immediately offered Arendse the opportunity to play for the University of the Western Cape in the Varsity Shield.

“In 2014, Kurt-Lee was chosen to play for the Boland Academy team where he was seen as the standout backline player at the tournament,” Ontong said.

“Chester obviously saw his potential and decided to sign him up for the University of the Western Cape.”

UWC’s director of sport Mandla Gagayi remembers Arendse’s first steps at the university and how Williams, who sadly passed away shortly before the 2019 Rugby World Cup, took the starlet under his wing.

“Chester kept on telling me about one of his biggest recruits they landed and urging me to go to training to meet the student,” Gagayi said.

“When I got to training, Kurt-Lee was watching from the sidelines because he didn’t have boots. Chester bought him a new pair for the next training session, and boy his showing convinced me already that he was a star.”

Ontong kept referring to Arendse as a humble kid, who respected his teachers and never got into trouble. A soft-spoken, shy teenager who just wanted to work hard.

Williams had a similar personality, the most polite person you could ever wish to meet, but fierce in his beliefs and principles.

Arendse embodies that same fierce, but humble spirit, as was witnessed in the Rugby World Cup final when he made a match-defining try-saving tackle on Rieko Ioane, who is about 25kg heavier than the Bok speedster.

During the final episode of Chasing the Sun 2, when that tackle was showcased, assistant coach Felix Jones, has similar thoughts about Arendse the man and the rugby player.

“We talk about warrior a lot. Kurt-Lee Arendse is the definition of a warrior,” Jones said.

“Positive, wins his battles, beats his opposite man, brave as anything. He never has an ego. Takes it on the chin and goes again.”

It wasn’t long before Arendse was spotted by the Springboks Sevens side after a few top performances for UWC.

From there, Jake White signed him for the Bulls during the Covid-19 pandemic after the Sevens team couldn’t travel to compete abroad.

It’s for the Bulls in the domestic matches where Arendse really caught the eye, and, two years later in 2022, he would make his debut for the Springboks against Wales in Bloemfontein, following in the foot steps of his mentor, Williams.

“Chester and Kurt-Lee had a very close relationship, and Chester used to tell me that Kurt-Lee reminded him of his own humble beginnings, and that is what pushed Chessie to always keep him closer,” Gagayi said.

“Even when Kurt-Lee received his Blitzbok contract, he took it to Chester for advice because he valued it. One person that always knew that Kurt-Lee will be a Springbok was Chester, and he never made it a secret.

“I believe that every match that Kurt-Lee plays he plays it for Chessie, because he knows how much Chester believed in him, even when he didn’t believe in himself.”

In 2023, Kurt-Lee Arendse became a world champion with the Springboks by beating the All Blacks, just like Chester Williams in 1995.