RYAN VREDE writes Luke Watson will return to South Africa a transformed man.
I remember interviewing Springbok lock Andries Bekker just after Watson announced he was leaving the Stormers for Bath in late 2009.
Watson polarised the Stormers’ dressing room like he polarised the rugby fraternity. Senior players, mostly Boks, despised him, while some of the younger boys were attracted by his passion and energy. Nobody questioned his talent. His attitude, personality and agenda were the points of conflict.
Bekker, I gathered, was in the former category. He had established himself as an incumbent to Victor Matfield with the Springboks and was undoubtedly influenced to view Watson as the ‘cancer’ John Smit called him in his autobiography.
‘Will the Stormers be better off without Luke in the squad?’ I asked Bekker. ‘Definitely, no question,’ came the response. It didn’t need elaboration. Bekker’s point was made.
I could understand the deep disdain for Watson. He hadn’t endeared himself to senior Springboks and indeed those on the fringe of the squad in 2007, when, through his father Cheeky’s influential political connections, he was forced on then Springbok coach Jake White, whom he had slammed in a magazine interview just a year earlier.
South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins took the unprecedented step of adding his name to a 45-man squad despite the national selectors vehemently opposing the move. White first heard of Watson’s inclusion minutes before the squad announcement.
I remember the weeks that followed in Johannesburg. Watson cut a dejected figure as he ran with the reserves. Neither White nor the senior players interacted with him. At the end of training sessions he changed by himself and was the first on the team bus. He ate alone at a five-seater table and spent all of his free time pawing away at his mobile phone. I felt for Watson, even though I understood the sentiment.
Certainly it only served to fuel his bitterness towards the Boks.
Peter de Villiers, a family friend of the Watsons, was always expected to select Luke when he replaced White in 2008. But he would soon come to understand the complications associated with Watson’s presence and duly dropped him under pressure from the anti-Watson brigade.
Later that year Watson would recount his debut Test against Samoa at an awards dinner in Cape Town. Transcripts of the speech were released where Watson allegedly said that he felt like vomiting on the Springbok jersey because it represented a dark and forgettable past for black South Africans (Watson’s family were heavily involved in the struggle against apartheid).
He said that South African rugby was being run by ‘Dutchmen’ (a derogatory word for Afrikaners). He had already vexed the very soul of the senior Boks, most of them Afrikaners, and now had completely and irreversibly fractured that relationship.
He was lambasted in the media and in rugby circles. The youngsters at the Stormers who had been allies were now fearful of being associated with Watson. It all become too much for Watson, who accepted Bath’s offer.
By all accounts he has been an inspirational figure at The Rec. He refused the captaincy unless the players approved it.
The move to the Premiership has made him a better player, but most pertinently, the relative anonymity Bath has offered has allowed him to mature emotionally. That, more than any technical improvement, has been the city’s greatest gift to Watson.
He found himself in Bath, and it was a significant departure from the man he thought he was. South Africans, those open to having their perceptions challenged, in time will understand that Watson is a man transformed.
Gone are the impetuous statements that used to be a feature of any Watson interview, replaced by measured, thoughtful offerings. Gone too is his placid willingness to allow his father Cheeky to direct his thoughts. He still has great respect for him, but Watson is in every way his own man.
His decision to return to South Africa, to his hometown of Port Elizabeth, to the Kings, where Cheeky is president, was his own. It was borne from the belief that he could make a difference and elevate the franchise, which is promised Super Rugby participation in 2013.
Watson gives the Kings pulling power. He will be presented as a symbol of the franchise’s intent to mix it with the big boys, and no doubt will be asked to make calls to players who would otherwise have never considered a career in the Eastern Cape. He could be the difference between winning and losing crucial matches. Such players are invaluable.
The Kings offer a player of Watson’s calibre little in return. Certainly not the standard of competition that will improve him, or the ability to match what he was earning at Bath or could have commanded at an elite European club.
This makes Watson’s decision ever more perplexing, but undeniably impressive. In a culture where southern hemisphere players are always willing to worship at the northern hemisphere’s feet, Watson has, inadvertently, styled himself as a rugby anti-Christ.
Watson has again made headlines in South Africa. This time they are for the right reasons. Surely there will be those who will seek to revisit the past and discuss his Bok future in the hope they will expose Watson’s transformation as fraudulent. I hope they don’t succeed and I don’t believe they will.
– Read more blogs including why Watson won’t be the first Saffa to leave the Premiership, and why it was wrong for the European Rugby Cup to silence Brendan Venter on The Telegraph’s website