Return of the King

MARK KEOHANE, writing in SA Rugby magazine reveals how Luke Watson’s move to the EP Kings transpired and his reasons behind it.

What defines legacy? What defines you? What motivates you? What inspires you? What’s the purpose and who are the beneficiaries?

Twitter, that wonderful social network website that can make 140 characters seem like 140 pages, had initially played host to many of these questions.

Luke Watson, once a Shark, then a Stormer and at the time captain of Bath, was among those constantly motivating, inspiring, asking questions and seeking insights. There was the occasional rugby banter, but mostly Watson would tweet about inspiration and a world far greater than an oval ball.

Twitter is how I connected again with Watson, but there is only so much one can say in 140 characters. There is also only so much one wants to say in an e-mail. Nothing beats a face-to-face question and answer session, no matter how formal or informal the occasion.

Legacy, purpose and beneficiaries. Life and growth. These were the things we were going to talk about.

We were in Bath, on a Sunday afternoon, at an extremely plush hotel restaurant. There was no need for Twitter. This was about eye contact, body language and both of us getting a feel for the sincerity of the conversation.

Watson, the player who so divided opinion in South Africa, was the unifier at Bath.

He inspired the players, supporters and those whose job it was to tell the story of Bath’s season.

If we were talking purpose, legacy and beneficiary I said, when was he returning to South Africa to play for the Kings and to inspire and lead South Africans?

‘It’s a strange question,’ said Watson. ‘You surely know my dad and I have had our difficulties and going to Port Elizabeth is not something I have had reason to consider. Why would I want to leave Bath? It’s giving me everything as a player.’

It was late October 2010 and I had recently returned from India with the South African Commonwealth Games squad. Watson, his foot in a moon boot, was making sense of what good could be taken from his enforced absence from the English Premiership because of a foot injury and he was intrigued by India and my impressions of the country.

India … It is a place that fascinates him on a spiritual and socio-economic level. There is poverty and there is celebration. There is ritual and unrelenting belief. There is hope.

‘It’s a place I will still visit with my family. It’s a place whose  history and people are fascinating. I’ve read a lot about India and love hearing the views of people who have visited the place. I find the reaction very diverse … a bit like when asking people about visiting South Africa. There are so many different opinions, but I always get an overwhelming feeling of hope when it comes to India and South Africa. And hope is always inspirational.’

Our topic discussion was vast, but I would ask again about the Kings, adding that I was aware of the sensitivities and complexities in the relationship with his father because of his parents’ divorce.

I was going through a divorce and for both of us there was relevance in how it forced a rethink; how it was shaping my views and the dynamic when kids are involved. I admitted my son was taking strain.

‘Tell your boy he may be 11 but it isn’t any easier when you are 26 and your parents divorce. I know his pain,’ he said. ‘There is a lot of pain, sadness and too many questions. Can you see why going to Port Elizabeth isn’t something I have considered?’

It is important people know the dynamic between Watson the father and Watson the son in October 2010 because Cheeky Watson, in his capacity as EPRFU president, did not pick up a phone and ask his son to come home and promise him a free ride.

Luke returning was not a predetermined Kings plan. The younger Watson’s decision to go to the Kings was self-made and self-motivated and it had nothing to do with his father being the boss.

When I had lunch with Luke and his wife Elaine in Bath the communication between father and son was limited. It has subsequently increased but the professional formalities are at the core of their interaction. The two speak more about what they want to do for the Kings than they necessarily do about rebuilding their relationship as father and son.

It is necessary to reinforce that the drive to get Luke to Port Elizabeth came from Kings director of rugby and head coach   Alan Solomons. And there was no guarantee Watson would leave England.

I had spoken with Solomons before having lunch with Luke and Elaine.

‘Would you want him?’ I asked Solomons. ‘Are you chasing him?’

‘Of course I would want him, but I would want Luke Watson and not Cheeky Watson’s son,’ said Solomons. ‘I have enormous respect for what Cheeky is doing with the Kings and it would serve no purpose for Luke, Cheeky or rugby in this region if the time wasn’t right for him to play in South Africa again.

‘I don’t want a player on a personal crusade. There would be no winner in Luke returning to Port Elizabeth to prove a point to his father. Luke would have to want to come because of what he believes is possible with the Kings and what he believes he can offer the game and the people in the region.

‘He is a brilliant player and those who have played with him speak about his exceptional and inspirational leadership and about his ability to make things happen. He would be integral to what I want to build at the Kings, but is he at the right juncture to give up what he has in England to be a pioneer in Port Elizabeth? He captains Bath, a side that includes the England captain Lewis Moody, and his performances have been such that he can pretty much pick the club he wants to play for in Europe – and he can name his price.

‘I’d love to know how much he wants to return to South Africa, but I can’t see it happening just yet; more so because he has to deal with personal issues that he may not be ready to confront. But to answer your question as to if I would want him: Bloody right I would.’

Solomons was the first person I spoke to after my visit to Bath.

‘You’ve got to get him, Solly,’ I said. ‘He doesn’t belong in Bath. He has a greater purpose than captaining Bath for the next five years. He just has to realise it and I think he does. He has to be back in South Africa. He’s done his time in England. It’s been good for him because he’s found himself. He’s become his own man and an incredibly likeable one at that.’

Solomons wanted to know to what extent the Kings were discussed.

‘We spoke more about India, South Africa, Bath, divorce, and mainly inspiration and energy. What defines a man? What motivates a man? What is success? Where and what is the inspiration and what is the purpose of it all? Who are the beneficiaries?’ I said. ‘And we spoke a lot about tattoos and  a bit about the Kings. He knows what the Kings will mean to South African rugby and South African society. He knows he wants to be among those leading the change. He didn’t say so, but I know he knows. It’s in his eyes. It’s in his questions.’

I joked about the significance of Watson’s tattoo of a crown on his inner forearm.

‘He’s the king of his own destiny,’ I said. ‘He has the crown. He wears it on his forearm. He has to be playing for the Kings.’

I also spoke about the transformation of an individual who seemed to listen more and think a heck of a lot more since his move to England. Watson has always had an opinion and never shied away from sharing it. He is a man of statements and is apparently emphatic in his views. But I found a man asking more questions than giving answers and one wanting to be challenged more by the answer than comforted by his question. There was no pretence that he had the answers. There was no bravado. There was no intent to list the virtues of playing and living in England and he never sought an opportunity to denounce South African rugby.

He poked fun at himself and spoke with a sense of awe at the personalities he had met at Bath. Every player, he said, had taught him something. He had views on rugby in England and South Africa and on players, coaches and tournaments. He did not need me to tell him how well he was playing and he did not need to reference his season statistics as a vindication of his qualities as a player. Those were things he knew.

I also knew that he knew he had to return to Port Elizabeth – and it had to be in 2011 and not 2013 when the Kings enter Super Rugby. Bath had offered him a long-term contract and the continued captaincy. Other top European clubs had made contact but the Kings was beyond a rugby challenge and a financial safety net. The Kings spoke to his mind and his soul. Other offers spoke to his ego and his bank balance.

‘I can’t escape the appeal of being among the pioneers of the Kings’ Super Rugby franchise,’ he would later tell me. ‘But if I want to go it must be now when the franchise gets built. I can’t be that guy who arrives once others have done the hard work. If I feel I can make a difference then it has to be now.

‘What’s the price of staying or going? Do I stay with the known or chase the thrill of the unknown? Is it fair to Elaine and our little one? Will there be regrets and can I be true to my belief that rugby is a game I play and not what defines me? I have a lot to think about. Somehow I knew I would have to make a decision on returning to Port Elizabeth but I did not know it would be this soon.’

Watson, by the first week in December, had met Solomons in London. He admits he had made his decision even before shaking hands with Solomons.

‘I had heard so many good things about Solly’s passion and love for the game that it only made the decision easier. Once I met him I felt even more comforted that we shared an idealism for what the Kings should represent and a practicality about what they have to achieve as a team and a region.

‘I consulted with people whose opinions I respect. I prayed for clarity and I have no doubt it is the right decision made for the right reasons. I am not back in South Africa to prove anything to anyone or to myself. I am in Port Elizabeth to make a contribution, to a team, to a region and ultimately to a country.

‘It’s about being South African more than it’s about being a rugby player, but rugby in our country is a platform that can inspire and provide hope. The Kings are about hope and that is why I came back. We talk and tweet about legacy, inspiration and beneficiaries and we may as well be talking – and tweeting – about the Kings.’

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine. The July issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 22 June.
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