Luke Watson says he would be open to representing the Springboks again and believes they are in a stronger position than any other team to win the World Cup.
Watson was speaking in Cape Town en route to Port Elizabeth where he will commence duty with the EP Kings after two years at Bath in the Premiership.
He left South Africa in late 2009 having established a reputation for being outspoken on a range of issues, most notably representing the Springboks. At a dinner at University of Cape Town Rugby Club, he was alleged to have said, among other things, that he felt like vomiting on the Bok jersey when he debut in 2007 because of what it represented.
Although it was never confirmed that he said this, many of the senior Springboks, who had been vehemently opposed to his late inclusion in the 2007 World Cup training squad, used the claims to further justify their dislike and disregard for him.
Watson, whose father Cheeky was a prominent activist during the struggle years, intimated that his thinking and attitude at the time had been influenced by others. He, however, suggested that he returns a different person.
‘I grew up in a fundamentally different environment to most – every word was watched, every decision I made monitored,’ Watson told keo.co.za. ‘I remember being interviewed by CNN at the age of 10 and asked whether I support the Springboks. I said “yes”, but was quickly rapped over the knuckles by the powers that be because it wasn’t the correct thing to do politically.
‘I never really had an opportunity to establish my own identity and make my own decisions. These 18 months in Bath have been incredibly beneficial in that regard. It’s given me the opportunity to assess the things that I value.
‘It’s easy for me to sit here and tell you how mature I have become. But I can only hope that over the next few years you will notice that there are certain values and principles have have been altered. I’m still going to be the Luke Watson that speaks from my heart, not too worried about the consequences that come with the truth. I’m not going to shy away from any issues because of opposition I’ve received in the past.
‘Yes there are things that I still don’t agree with at a national and regional level. But if I do get the opportunity to represent my country again I will do so very proudly.’
Watson is unlikely to force his way into the Springbok World Cup squad, and never gave the impression that he expected to. But that didn’t stop him from sharing his views on where they stand at present.
‘As far as talent squad and depth goes, I don’t think any team can match the Springboks,’ he said. ‘If the All Blacks lose Dan Carter or Richie McCaw there are big, big holes to fill. We’re not in the same situation. Most of our players are very easily replaceable. We’re in a very strong position if the right team is selected and managed correctly.’
Watson added: ‘I’d like to see a couple of the youngsters who haven’t got an opportunity to play Test rugby get that chance before the World Cup. For example, for me it’s ridiculous that Duane Vermeulen hasn’t played any Tests. He has been the most consistent loose forward in the last two or three seasons of Super Rugby. Yes we have great loose forwards, but surely you have to find an opportunity somewhere for him.
‘Also, I’d like to see Pat Lambie play two or three Tests at 10. Peter Grant deserves an opportunity as well. We’ve seen what Morné Steyn can do, but we should go to the World Cup knowing that we have options in terms of playing different styles against different teams.’
The 27-year-old, who will compete with Eastern Province in the Currie Cup First Division and Vodacom Cup (in 2012) until the Kings’ entry into Super Rugby in 2013, said he wasn’t available to any other franchise in 2012.
Watson acknowledged the prevailing perception that he was taking a massive step backwards in his career, but explained the decision, saying: ‘I was in heaven in Bath, earning pounds and captaining the side. Life was easy. I could have stayed in Bath and taken comfortable, easy route. But I knew there was something greater that I could achieve.
‘I understand that people would look at the move from one of the top sides in Europe to playing Currie Cup First Division as a step down and a risk. But I look at the long-term potential of this decision, especially its ability to uplift a community and region. Sure there are a lot of things that are not ideal. But there are a lot more that are.
‘I really believe that the players and the resources are there for the Kings to be successful. It’s incredibly difficult to keep the talented players in the Eastern Cape without a Super Rugby franchise. The Kings solve that problem, although I appreciate that it will take time [to hold on to the region's best players].’