‘I was a political pawn’
26 Oct 2010
In an exclusive interview with SA Rugby magazine, Luke Watson talks to GAVIN RICH about the mistakes he’s made, his controversial Springbok call up, and the move to Bath that has reinvigorated his career.
Luke Watson has unfinished business. He wants to wipe the slate clean after his controversial time in South African rugby by returning after his stint in England and making a positive contribution to the game in his homeland.
The cynical may raise their eyebrows and shake their heads dismissively at those words. The Bath captain would probably anticipate it. He knows he made enemies before he left for the new chapter in his career, and he understands it. Without wanting to make apologies for what went before, he now understands why many people back home don’t like him. If he had his time again, he would do things differently.
The former Western Province and Sharks player has never been afraid to say it how he sees it. There are many issues he has spoken out on in the past that he still feels deeply for. But after almost a year away from the role he was cast into almost from birth as the son of political activist Cheeky Watson, he now sees things differently. He is honest in his appraisal of where some things went wrong.
The relaxed openness and sincerity with which he spoke over the phone from his base in Bath was certainly a far cry from the fidgety, edgy exterior Watson presented to the media in 2007 when he was selected as unwanted player No 46 in Jake White’s national squad and again when selected in less controversial circumstances in 2008.
Back then Watson put across the message that he wanted to talk even less than he wanted to be there. In face-to-face interviews, he tended to stare into the middle distance, as if there was something else on his mind, with his words spat out in a fast, nervous manner. Unless you were part of his inner circle, it wasn’t easy to warm to him.
To be fair, it may not only be the thousands of kilometres that now separate Watson from his past that has ignited change in the 26-year-old. Even in 2009, when he was playing his last Currie Cup season for Western Province, Watson started coming across as a changed person.
At the time, Cape Town rugby scribes attributed it to the realisation that his duties as Province captain demanded that he be more personable. But Watson reckons his last months at Newlands coincided with the arrival of a newfound maturity.
He got married, he started to look at life in a new way, and the move to England was an expression of his desire to experience something that would force him to embrace a broader view on the world and life than was being afforded by the deeply principled political roots of his upbringing.
‘Being a newlywed was part of the reason for the move to Bath. I don’t mean this in a negative sense, but I wanted to get away from family and friends, and it was something my wife and I decided between us,’ says Watson. ‘It wasn’t a case of me wanting to run away. I have never been one to shy away from problems and I’m not afraid of conflict. I have lived with adversity all my life, and if anything, the perception that I might be running away was something that made me reluctant to leave South Africa.’
Watson hasn’t regretted the move. When he arrived in England it was the first time he was accepted and embraced for who he was and not on the basis that he was Cheeky Watson’s son. It was an interesting experience.
‘It was really weird. It was the first time I’d arrived somewhere without feeling I had to have my guard up and needed to defend myself. I was brought up in an extremely hostile environment. As a kid you view everything you are told as the gospel truth. I used to get bullied when I first started school and I never understood why. It built up a defence mechanism in me.
‘Given the environment I was confronted with, I became defensive. I had the feeling people were against me. I was sometimes right about that, and I was sometimes wrong about it.
‘When I arrived at Bath there was none of that. It confused me at first. I was so used to having to battle with people, to defend myself, and suddenly I didn’t have to do that. But it was a refreshing change, and it has shown me a lot and allowed me to grow. There are no excuses for me at Bath, I have been accepted for who I am and my past hasn’t been an issue at all.’
Being in a more receptive environment than he was in back home has allowed Watson time to reflect.
‘I’ve changed a lot as an individual since I’ve been here. Being away from South Africa has given me a chance to breathe, a chance to see things from an outside perspective,’ says Watson. ‘It has given me a chance to take a good hard look at myself and what has gone before, to distinguish between what is true and what is not true, what is hype and what is propaganda.
‘The feelings that have driven the way I’ve acted have been feelings I had from a young age. I grew up in an environment that was very different to that experienced by other white kids of my age. I had certain beliefs installed in me from the outset.
‘I would hope that over time I’ve grown up, matured. There are still things I stand by, and maybe if I’d done things differently I wouldn’t have learnt as much as I have, but if I had my time again, I would do many things differently. I can now understand why so many people back home disliked me.’
One of the things Watson would do differently relates to his call-up to White’s Springbok squad in the World Cup year.
‘I do regret now that I went to the camp when the coach didn’t want me. I was as wrong in doing that as Jake was in publicly criticising Schalk Brits and me for no reason. But I did things back then that weren’t always my choice. I was made to feel that I had to attend the camp as part of a cause, to satisfy the people who had pushed for my inclusion.
‘In reality I was a political pawn. I felt that my intentions were noble, that I was advancing some cause, but I also knew I didn’t want to be there any more than Jake and the rest of the Springbok players wanted to have me there. In hindsight it was wrong, and while I was cross with Jake for the things he said, two wrongs definitely don’t make a right.’
Watson says he was disappointed when he heard that Springbok captain John Smit, in his autobiography, had referred to him as the cancer in the team that undermined the first Bok Tri-Nations campaign of the Peter de Villiers era. But even though he clearly thinks Smit went a bit far, his mood towards the captain is a conciliatory one.
‘In all fairness, from my side, the way I look at it now, I can see where John was coming from. I didn’t want to be there, and John knew it. That knowledge must have made it difficult for him and the rest of the team,’ says Watson. ‘What I don’t buy, though, is that I was the cause of the Bok losses that year. That doesn’t make sense. How can one guy derail an entire campaign? It wasn’t as if I was even an important member of the squad, I was only a reserve most of the time.
‘I don’t think I was a massively disruptive influence then, but there were things I disagreed with, and it’s another issue that, were I to have that time again, I would approach differently. I am much more mature now, and though I will never apologise for calling a spade a spade and fighting for things I feel strongly about, there are a few questions I have to ask myself.
‘Was I the positive influence that I should have been? No. Was I constructive enough in my approach? No. I shouldn’t have been there, my mindset was all wrong.’
Watson’s leadership credentials and ability to inspire others have never been questioned, but his appointment as captain of Bath earlier this year should have confirmed it to any remaining doubters. Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold knows many people who are part of the Bath set-up, and he says the way Watson has been accepted there as a leader should be seen as a massive tribute to him.
‘There are some really experienced and potentially difficult older guys in the club, and yet I hear from people that I’m connected with, and from Butch James, who plays there, that Luke is really enjoyed and respected by everyone at Bath,’ says Gold.
Gold reckons Watson has been misunderstood for much of his career, and believes he can make a massive contribution to South African rugby if he returns after the next World Cup. For his part, Watson would love to do that.
‘I do feel that I have unfinished business in South Africa, and I am really passionate about the country. It relates to what I said earlier about not being constructive enough before. I would like to go back at a later stage in my career and make a more productive contribution to the game there. I would like to be a good role model for younger players, to offer something positive.’
From a playing viewpoint, Watson is convinced that even at 26, his best playing days are still ahead of him.
‘The move has been a step forward for me as a player, I have learnt so much. The captaincy challenge has been interesting too. At WP I was leading a team made up mostly of youngsters, but here I’m leading players like Lewis Moody and Danny Grewcock, guys who have a lot of Tests for England under their belts.
‘Rugby is less cut-throat and brutal here. You’re allowed to have one or two bad games every now and then without being totally written off and ridiculed. But I also find that there’s a much greater reliance on strategy here, and it has been good to experience that.’
– This article first appeared in the October issue of SA Rugby magazine.