The unique Luke Watson
February 21, 2013
The Southern Kings' skipper Luke Watson © Getty Images
"It is the first time ever that people will wear the Southern Kings jersey, and that has been attractive to a lot of players - to be part of a vision and part of a goal that is bigger than rugby. They will create their own part of history."
There will never be another rugby player quite like Luke Watson. Labelled "cancerous" by World Cup-winning skipper John Smit, Watson has never been far from controversy, whether through fault of his own or not.
He was famously picked by South African Rugby Union chief executive Oregon Hoskins for the pre-2007 World Cup squad and not by coach Jake White, with cynics deeming this to be due to his father's influence in South African rugby and politics - a year later Watson was quoted as saying that he wanted to vomit on the Springboks' jersey.
Staunchly anti-apartheid, even at a time when racial segregation was still very much part of life in South Africa, Watson has always been outspoken - he follows in the footsteps of his father David 'Cheeky' Watson who turned down the chance to play for the Boks during the 1970s in favour of competing in mixed-race competitions.
That only scratches the surface of Watson's mixed past and to explain it fully, by his own admission, would take numerous interviews and reams of paper. But while all that is in the past, come February 23, Watson will be carving out a new unique niche in South Africa's rugby history.
Watson is the figurehead for the Southern Kings, South Africa's newest Super Rugby franchise. Due to circumstance, it has been hurriedly assembled as they only got the nod to take part in the southern hemisphere's premier competition just over a year ago. But it is a team based and fully immersed in the country's Eastern Cape with the bulk of the players coming from within the region. Watson is proud of its significance, its ethos and his passion for the Kings and what they represent is clear.
"We are a young side, a young team," Watson told ESPN. "Our vision from a couple of years back was to bring top flight rugby to this area and our vision for that was to build a team truly representative of the demographics of this country.
"We are not going to say that we can immediately do that in the first season but our long-term goal is to be a team, a union and a hub where young black talent has the opportunity to further their career and make the most of their potential."
There are enough examples from the past of new franchises struggling in their first year to act as cautionary tales for Watson and his team-mates. He is fully aware that they will have to perform to avoid going the way in which many critics deem them destined.
"We need to be competitive and to not only represent ourselves as a region but also South Africa with pride. We need to take it game by game and see where that leads us. In the past some franchises have struggled a bit in their first opening seasons so we are not going to become presumptuous and start waving the victory banner and dream of lifting the trophy, but at the same time we do not want to sell ourselves short. We are not fully aware of what to expect of ourselves but neither will the other teams be."
And the Watson leading his team out as captain against the Western Force will be different from the one to which the South African public are accustomed. He recently apologised for his comments regarding the Springbok jersey made back in 2008 - a decision he puts down to "a lot of introspection and retrospection and maturity as a young man" - and while he is fully aware that he may not be greeted too warmly by opposition fans, he is hopeful that the Port Elizabeth support will be fully behind their ambitious ideology.
His original decision to come back to South African rugby was a risky one. The move was confirmed during the 2010-11 season when he was turning out for Premiership side Bath and at the time, the Kings did not have a guaranteed Super Rugby place.
And in many ways the two years in Bath breathed new life into his career. Previously to that he was turning out for the Stormers in Super Rugby and he arrived at The Rec under the cloud of ill-feeling from within South African rugby - even one of his Stormers team-mates, Andries Bekker, when asked whether Watson's exit would benefit the side reportedly answered: "Definitely, no question".
But Bath at the time seemed the perfect marriage. They were trying to cope with the huge fallout from the well-publicised drug scandal involving some of their top players but Watson found solace in the wounded side. The change acted as a tonic for both the player and the team.
"Having that warm reception was a breath of fresh air for me. I could be myself and could play the game without any pre-conceived ideas and without the media breathing down my neck - it made it all easier."
But the lure of the Kings and their project proved to be too much. "I don't think I could have left any other time," Watson explains. "Had I stayed there (in Bath), I would have stayed there for a long time. At the time I was looking at a three-year extension to my contract but the opportunity came along to represent the Southern Kings - it was a team in my home city and was close to my heart.
"It was a choice between two very different lifestyles and I knew there would be more and different challenges coming back to South Africa than staying at Bath - so it was the vision and goal of coming back to South Africa that clinched it. I have no regrets coming back to Port Elizabeth but it was not a decision that I took lightly."
Watson on Bath duty © Getty Images
The Kings, barring some unforeseen circumstance, will be his last club and when he finally calls time on professional rugby, he will not have a moment to put his feet up and reflect on an eventful career. Outside of the game his time is taken up by the charity he helped found - Love Story. It is focused around the parable of the Good Samaritan and, similar to his passion for the Kings, Watson's enthusiasm for his charity is infectious.
"The charity is centred around loving your neighbour. You must go beyond courtesy and call of duty and almost have to make sacrifices. In Luke 10:37 - Jesus ends with the parable where he says go and do the same as the Good Samaritan. We don't want to be the people who come and save the day; our goal is just to reflect hope.
"We have established three soup kitchens in local townships and have also built three crèches - slowly but surely we are taking step by step to contributing towards a good cause. We make hospital visits and hand out second-hand clothes to young kids, new born babies and their mothers, for example. We don't stick to one thing and whatever comes across our path we try and make the most of it."
Watson is the antithesis to the lives of some rugby players that seem, in his words, "insular and self-centred". You cannot help but admire the passion and drive of the man when talking to him.
And he is now focused on trying to pass on his experience to the rest of his Kings team. If they do fail in their opening season, then it will not be due to lack of effort on his part. Beyond this season he is unsure what the future holds, but in his own words "the story is not finished yet".
"Life has thrown quite a few curve balls at me and I am incredibly content with the direction that life has taken me but that has taught me to not look too far into the future. I might play a couple more rugby seasons and help establish the Kings into the franchise and Union. And beyond that, I'd like to continue in a similar regard to the Love Story.
"For me life is very, very short and my legacy does not lie in my accomplishments and instead in the lives I have touched and blessed along the way.
"And it is important for me that my kids grow up learning that. We can achieve many great things in life but if you haven't had the simple achievement of helping or touching someone else's life then the trophies in the cabinet aren't worth much."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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