What to do about Watson?

Luke Watson’s form presents a multi-layered conundrum for the Springbok selectors while his father’s fractious relationship with Peter de Villiers does his cause no good.

The first layer in that conundrum is straight forward: do they even select Watson for the upcoming British & Irish Lions tour?

Watson polarized national opinion when, speaking at the Ubumbo Rugby Festival at the University of Cape Town Rugby Football Club on Friday, 3 October, he allegedly said he felt like vomiting on the Springbok jersey when he debuted because he felt it necessary to honour the men who had overcome an oppressive regime to get him there. In a question and answer session that followed he then allegedly made racists comments relating to the administration of South African rugby, saying it was ‘run by Dutchmen’.

Watson was later cleared of charges brought against him by SA Rugby on a technicality, but never denied making the statements and even acknowledged that he knew the student who had made the recording of the speech which was leaked to the media.

He found some support in a liberal faction of the South African rugby fraternity, but the overwhelming sentiment towards Watson was one of disdain.

Speaking to keo.co.za in an anonymous capacity, a number of senior Springboks have stated their dislike for Watson, with one highly experienced member going as far as to say he hopes Watson never plays for the Springboks again. He confirmed that it was a view held by many members of the squad.

However, Watson’s form is giving the Springbok selectors a problem they must have known was a possibility, but hoped they would never have to deal with.

That Watson has shone behind a Stormers pack that gets routinely mangled, bears testament to his skill. He has arguably been the finest of the South African No 8s thus far, edging the Springbok incumbents Pierre Spies and Ryan Kankowski. Statistics released by Verusco – the New Zealand-based company that supplies video analysis systems to most of the Super 14 teams – reveal that Watson is ahead of both Spies and Kankowski in all the key performance indicators for a No 8.

Even prior to his appointment as Springbok coach, De Villiers was vocal in his belief that form must be the primary consideration when selecting a squad. If he is to stay true to that belief, Watson, on current form, must be in his match 22 and would probably have a strong case to be included in his run-on side.

In what position he will play is a quandary De Villiers will need to negotiate and one we’ll discuss in a moment.

De Villiers has been quoted as saying that Watson won’t be discriminated against when it comes to selection. They have enjoyed a good relationship in the past and their maturity will determine whether that continues in future. However, the fact that De Villiers’s relationship with Watson’s outspoken father, Cheeky, has degenerated dramatically over the last couple of weeks inadvertently places extra pressure on Luke.

Sondag reports that De Villiers has sent SA Rugby a letter via his attorney demanding that they take action against Cheeky for allegedly calling him ‘a baboon who does not know what he is doing’ in a recent meeting of the EP Legends. While De Villiers’s stance on Luke is admirable in theory, it remains to be seen whether he can ignore the impetuosity of his father and focus solely on Luke’s performances when assessing his suitability for Springbok selection.

Should Watson be included in the Springbok squad, the question of where he will be accommodated will have to be addressed.

Despite playing at No 8, Watson continues to be deployed as the Stormers’ primary fetcher. He is the leading South African player in terms of turnovers, and was third in the tournament overall prior to the last round. However, his potency hasn’t been limited to his contribution on the deck. He is among the best loose forwards in terms of metres gained with ball in hand and linebreaks.

Most would consider it folly to suggest that Watson be included at No 8 ahead of Spies or Kankowski, while to even contemplate the possibility of Watson ousting one of Juan Smith or Schalk Burger (the most capped Test combination in Test rugby history) is bound to elicit calls for a lynching of the proponent of that view.

This, combined with off-field issues that affect the perception of Watson within the team, underlines the complex task De Villiers will have if Watson continues to deliver quality performances with the mechanical regularity he has over the last seven matches.

By Ryan Vrede