Just days after the Blitzboks team produced a pure masterclass to clinch the Commonwealth Games gold medal, former sevens superstar Kurt-Lee Arendse will start just his second Test for the Springboks against the All Blacks this Saturday.
Several years ago, such a selection would have been seen as a shock decision, and undoubtedly sent South African rugby followers into a frenzy. Standing at just 1.80m tall, while weighing in around 80kg, Arendse is a quite literal lightweight in a Springbok rugby team renowned for its hulking players and bone-crunching physicality.
Yet, Arendse is a like-for-like replacement for the injured Cheslin Kolbe, and the Bok coaches’ willingness to entrust the diminutive speedster with this starting opportunity is yet another example of a player selection philosophy that no longer has a primary fixation with size and brute strength.
In fact, when the Springboks break down their check list for selection, factors such as work rate, discipline and a so-called ‘warrior spirit’ are so highly valued that the playing field has been unequivocally opened up for all players in South African rugby.
Former sevens players such as Arendse and Kolbe are no longer dismissed as being “too small” for Test rugby, and it’s why we are increasingly seeing stars from the Blitzboks squad turning their attention to 15-man rugby. Think of Kolbe, think of Kwagga Smith, think of Arendse, and it becomes clearer than ever that the door to the Springbok team is open to anyone who produces consistent performances worthy of consideration.
Kolbe in fact once shared a largely unknown – but highly significant – story about the unexpected manner in which he was informed by former head coach Rassie Erasmus that he would be making his Test debut.
The talented wing’s first call-up to the Springboks came before the Australasian leg of the 2018 Rugby Championship, and caught many by surprise, including Kolbe himself.
“Literally my first proper face-to-face chat with coach Rassie was at the hotel reception; I was getting the cable ties cut off my luggage, and he’d just come out of a meeting,” Kolbe told this writer back in 2020.
“He welcomed me to the team, asked me how I was feeling and if there were any injury worries. I told him, ‘Thanks for the opportunity and that I’m 100% fine’. He replied to say if that’s the case I’ll be on the bench for the next game. I stood there and could barely believe it, and was wondering: is this how things happen here with such an open chat?,” Kolbe laughed.
A Test debut off the bench duly followed, but the real heroics would come a week later when he scored a stunning intercept try in the Springboks’ famous two-point win over the All Blacks in Wellington.
And so began Kolbe’s so-called ‘love affair’ of playing in high-profile matches, with the world-class wing having famously scored a sensational try in both the triumphant 2019 Rugby World Cup final and the decisive third Test against the British & Irish Lions in 2021.
No easy task
Replacing a player of Kolbe’s quality is no easy task, but the Bok coaches have had no hesitation in rewarding Arendse for his impressive performance on debut in the second Test against Wales.
It can’t be forgotten that the 26-year-old was not always an automatic first-choice at the Bulls during the United Rugby Championship, but once again the Boks have a unique outlook when assessing which players will fit into their system.
Last year, another sevens superstar, Rosko Specman, was very much part of the Bok group, while fellow former Blitzboks teammate Seabelo Senatla was also invited to an alignment camp earlier this season.
Meanwhile, Angelo Davids has just completed a remarkable campaign at the Commonwealth Games, scoring 10 tries on the way to helping the Springbok Sevens clinch gold. Suddenly, it’s no longer beyond the realms of possibility to think he could one day follow in the footsteps of Kolbe and Arendse. The same could be said of another sevens star JC Pretorius.
This all speaks to a culture that the Springboks have created where hard work and talent can be valued just as highly as strength and physicality. Players of all shapes and sizes can fit into this Bok team, and it’s the reason why hardly anyone batted an eyelid when Arendse was selected to start this weekend.
The South African rugby status quo and previous size-based selection narrative has well and truly been shaken up by the Springboks’ upper hierarchy over the last few years, and it only serves to reinforce the depth available at international level.