The late Chester Williams is best known as the first post-Apartheid Black Springboks player and a 1995 Rugby World Cup winner.
Less widely publicised is his role in coaching several talented players. There were few he was as proud of as the Blitzboks’ Kurt-Lee Arendse, who is out to emulate Williams at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Arendse was born a year after Williams won the World Cup, but the pair struck a bond when Williams coached Arendse at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) prior to the former’s death in 2019. Both were born in Paarl, and Arendse, like Williams, plays as a wing in the 15-a-side game.
Fortunately for Team South Africa, however, Sevens — the seven-a-side rugby format played at the Olympics — is Arendse’s natural habitat, and securing his services for Tokyo was a major coup for the Blitzboks.
Shortly before his death, Williams hailed Arendse in an interview with BET.co.za as one of the best players he ever coached.
“To be honest, I can’t describe [how that makes me feel],” Arendse told ESPN upon learning of Williams’ praise.
“To play under Chester was really a privilege. I’ve really learned a lot from him. He gave me an opportunity to study and to play rugby, and I will forever be grateful for that.
“I wouldn’t say he was my hero, because when he played I didn’t watch that much rugby; but as soon as I got to know him, he became one of my role models.”
Indeed, Arendse fell in love with rugby only when he was in high school at Paulus Joubert Secondary, although he started playing the game at eight years old.
Arendse shared a hometown with two of South Africa’s most prestigious rugby schools — Paarl Boys High and Paarl Gimnasium — but he was never snapped up by one of the mainstream schools and had a less conventional route to the top, bursting onto the scene at UWC.
Although he has had plenty of success in the 15-a-side game, most notably since joining the Blue Bulls — South Africa’s dominant rugby franchise — Arendse grew up preferring Sevens rugby.
“From school, I liked the Sevens game,” Arendse told ESPN.
“Although I didn’t play much Sevens at school, I liked it more than 15s. Then, I started playing for UWC Sevens and I told myself this was what I wanted to do.”
Arendse also played Sevens for Boland — the region of the Western Cape to the northeast of Cape Town.
His Sevens education has served him well in the race for Olympic selection, with Sevens having been introduced to the Games at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Prior to that, Arendse never in his wildest dreams pictured himself as an Olympic athlete.
“To be honest with you, not really,” Arendse said when asked if he ever envisioned competing at the Games. Despite his blistering pace, it never occurred to him that he might have a chance as a sprinter let alone a rugby player.
“I always tell myself to just take it day by day. By the end of the day, you never know — you might just get an opportunity and you must make use of it.”.
Arendse has made an impression on coach Neil Powell, who is in charge of the Blitzboks but has handed over on-field coaching responsibilities to Renfred Dazel for the Olympics while he recovers from COVID-19.
“He’s a very talented player — somebody that we obviously tried for the first time [in March 2019],” Powell said of Arendse in a December 2019 interview.
“We gave him an opportunity and he took it with both hands.
“He’s such a talented player and I think he’s talented because he’s an all-round good player; he’s good in attack and good in defence, and he’s also good in the contact at breakdowns. We’re very happy with how he’s developed over the past year.”
Powell is widely regarded as a rigorous, no-nonsense trainer, despite his gentle demeanour, and reputations did not disappoint when Arendse had the opportunity to experience the coach’s methods firsthand.
“I think coach Neil knows what he wants in life and how he wants things done,” Arendse said.
“I think he’s very demanding, but it’s good sometimes because I think that we sometimes don’t perform at our best. We need someone to be on our case the whole time to bring the best out of us.”
The bronze medal that the Blitzboks picked up in 2016 would have fallen short of the goals set by Powell, but they won back-to-back World Series titles in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
As one of the most talented players in a new generation of Blitzboks, Arendse has the opportunity to make history in Tokyo, just as his former mentor did on home soil 26 years ago.
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