Luke looms large

Luke Watson’s performances in the ABSA Currie Cup continue to embarrass the national selectors.

A year ago when Jake White told the media why he could not pick Watson, it was hard to counter his view. Watson simply was not playing well. There was talk of him leaving Western Province and there was even a suggestion that his only future in the game was in Sevens. Watson refused the option of the latter and accepted the performance of 2005 was not an indication of his talents. If anything it was an insult to his talent.

He had struggled in a new WP system, where his role had not been clearly defined. He needed clarity and time to adapt. He also needed to be a few kilograms heavier and a bit stronger. Unfortunately, he was never going to grow the inches White felt he lacked.

In 2006 Watson played his best Super rugby since his explosive first season with the Sharks as a 19 year-old. His match against the Force in Perth was the most impactful by a loose-forward in the competition. He was the Stormers best forward all season, but as fate would have it, Watson was on the receiving end of a Bulls pack that hammered the Stormers in the last game of the season.

When the Stormers went down by 32 points it gave White more ammunition against Watson. And the coach predictably used it to ask where Watson and his other least favoured player, Schalk Brits, were on the day. It is the argument White now uses whenever Watson’s name is discussed. “Where were they in that match?”

As I said at the time, they were pretty much on par with Joe van Niekerk, Schalk Burger, De Wet Barry, Marius Joubert, Eddie Andrews etc … but White had no problem selecting those guys.

Watson could very easily have bailed and taken up an overseas offer. He never did and to his credit he has never spoken of an overseas option. He has always vowed to prove his detractors wrong, not through word but by deed. And he has done that.

As impressed as I was with Watson at the Sharks, equally I was disappointed in his first year in Cape Town. With Watson not performing there was no counter to White’s belief that he would never be good enough.

But there is no doubt now that Watson is good enough. He is the best loose-forward in South Africa on form and while he will never have the intensity of Schalk Burger, the latter won’t have the skill or leadership of Watson. It is nonsense, however, that you can’t accommodate both in one team.

Watson’s build is typical of an specialist openside flanker and he is talented enough to be turned into a lineout option. If the Aussies can use George Smith and the All Blacks can maximise the lineout value of Richie McCaw then a good coach would get value out of Watson. As it is, give Watson a decent pair of lineout support options, in two strong lifters, and what becomes important is the lineout throw and not his height.

The WP captaincy has been the breakthrough for Watson. It has given him an edge and given him the freedom to run the show. It is hard for a natural leader to operate within a sea of mediocrity and the on-field leadership within the Stormers this season was average. It must have been incredibly frustrating for a player of Watson’s vigour to watch others stuff it up.

Watson, like Bob Skinstad, is a better player with the additional responsibility of the captaincy. And his performance has been of such a standard that he has also been the best player in every one of the province’s matches this season. His time on the ball against the Bulls screamed world class, especially the cross kick and the kick into the corner. His technique in making the tackle and winning back the ball is better than any loose-forward’s in the country. His passion has proved infectious.

Watson, by all accounts, motivates by passion. He is a religious man with strong convictions and that can either intimidate or inspire others. I’ve always felt that those secure in their own ways and being can be inspired by the Watson-type leaders. These are people who have equally strong conviction about themselves. But Watson would scare anyone with an insecurity, which is why the Province captain finds himself a long way from the national squad.

There is an insecurity within the management leadership of the Boks, most notably the head coach. Why, only he would know because the current Bok coach has done some wonderful things for Bok rugby.

White, if he took his blinkers off and dealt with his prejudice of Watson, would see a player with the ability to change the dynamic of the Bok squad. Watson would be an asset and White’s coaching job would be made easier because of his presence.

There are too many ‘Yes men’ in that Bok set-up, both in management and in the squad. There aren’t a hell of a lot who challenge the status quo by virtue of their presence and personality. Watson and Brits, like a Skinstad before them, are cut from that cloth.

And it seems to scare the Bok coach, when in fact it should be making him euphoric.

What’s impressed me most in the last three months about Watson has been his desire to work harder and play better. He is an articulate bloke capable of stringing together inspirational verse, even chapters. But the script he is writing on the playing field is becoming increasingly difficult to be ignored.

He is breaking down the selectors by weight of performance. His national selection surely has nothing to do with whether or not you like the guy. I’ve never spoken more than five words to Watson, having met him briefly in 2003. I have no opinion on him as a person as I have nothing on which to judge him. My judgement is of the player — a player who a year ago I wrote was bloody disappointing, but at the moment has been bloody brilliant … a player who has shown desire and dedication … a player who is deserving of more than the national selectors’ bias in not picking him.