Arendse: Small players like to be underestimated
SPOTLIGHT: Kurt-Lee Arendse enjoys nothing more than proving all those people who told him he was too small to play rugby wrong.
The diminutive 26-year-old is one of the most talked about players in the world game right now, following his try-scoring exploits for the Springboks in the November internationals, culminating in his superb finish during last weekend’s victory over England at Twickenham.
Now he is back on United Rugby Championship duty, having been named at fullback by the Bulls for Saturday’s encounter with in-form Cardiff Rugby at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld.
Hailing from the Western Cape of South Africa, Arendse found his size was often held against him as he looked to make his way in the game.
Asked whether people told him he was too small to play the sport when he was younger, he said: “I’ve heard that a lot, but I don’t listen to negative comments. I just focus on what I want to achieve.
“We small players like to be underestimated, but at the same we like to prove people wrong. Whenever we get the opportunity, we look to do that.”
As for his mindset when he comes up against players who are much larger than him physically, he has the perfect riposte.
“Obviously guys are bigger, but they move really slow! They have their weaknesses, so you look to capitalise on those,” he says.
One concession he does make in terms of the size of opponents is wearing a scrum-cap, which is becoming something of a trademark of his.
“It’s just for safety because guys are bigger than me. It gives me more confidence in tackles,” he explains.
In terms of a role model when he was growing up, he name-checks former Stormers back-three man Gio Aplon, who won 17 caps for the Springboks around a decade ago.
“He was also small and underestimated, but he kept on proving people wrong. He was one of the guys I looked up to and I was fortunate to play with him at the Bulls towards the end of his career, which was nice.”
Starting out in age-grade rugby with Western Province and Boland, Arendse first made his mark in Sevens, initially for the University of Western Cape and then with the BlitzBoks.
He was a regular fixture with the South African Sevens team for a couple of years, but with the World Series being put on hold due to Covid, he switched to the XV-a-side game by joining the Bulls in 2020, going on to make an immediate impression with his speed and elusive running.
Last season, he made more clean breaks (24) than any other player in the URC and was fourth in terms of defenders beaten (43), while he also showed his predatory prowess by scoring seven tries.
That fine form was rewarded this year when he made his Test debut against Wales in Bloemfontein. He is now up to seven caps and seven tries, having lit up the international arena with his finishing over the past few months.
There were touchdowns against New Zealand and Argentina in the Rugby Championship and then this November he has crossed the whitewash versus Ireland, France, Italy (twice) and England, with the last of those seeing him scorch outside Marcus Smith.
On that Twickenham sizzler, he said: “It was a special moment for me to score that try for my team. All that really went through my mind was just to dot the ball down. That was it. It was nice to contribute to my team.
“It’s been my first season for the Springboks and there have been ups and downs, but I am grateful for the opportunity I have had. I am just happy.
“We enjoy each other’s company and we have a great leader in Siya Kolisi, who knows the game well. It’s just great to have the opportunity to play for your country. For me, it’s about focusing on each game, being in the moment and not thinking too far ahead.”
Now it’s back to the Bulls, who lie third in the URC and will be looking to go one better than last season, having lost to the Stormers in the final during the inaugural year of the 16-team competition.
“We had a slow start in the URC last year and took a few shots, but we analysed the games and did well after the first couple of rounds,” said Arendse.
He returns to the fold for a meeting with Cardiff, who pulled off a startling 35-0 bonus point victory over the Sharks in Durban last Sunday.
“It was tough for the Sharks. We will try not to lose against Cardiff,” declared Arendse.
Then it’s on to the Champions Cup, with the Bulls facing Lyon and Exeter in the group stage as they embark on their first European campaign.
“It’s going to be a good competition and we are really looking forward to it. We can only learn from playing in the Champions Cup. It will be good for us in South Africa. We are definitely here to compete. I think people in Pretoria will come out in numbers for the games. It’s an exciting time for rugby.”
It’s certainly an exciting time for Arendse who is confirming the old adage that rugby really is a game for all sizes.