Luke back at stormy Newlands

    2013-05-27 19:00

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – With apologies for nicking the title of a U2 song, it’s a sort of homecoming for Luke Watson on Saturday as he leads the relegation-threatened Kings into Super Rugby derby battle with the Stormers at Newlands.

    It could be a reasonably tempestuous occasion ... and not just because the arrival of a well-developed early winter cold front is tipped to roughly coincide with this maiden all-Cape encounter (17:05 kick-off) in the competition.

    Watson’s likely return to the venue adds spice to the occasion: one of the most controversial figures on the domestic rugby landscape, the strong-willed 29-year-old will be setting foot anew on a ground where he has played the majority (2005-2009) of his pretty well-travelled first-class career.

    The reception he receives, it can probably be anticipated with some safety, will be mixed -- even if unlikely to come close to the sort of universal hostility he experienced in his first match at Loftus after the infamous Ubombo Rugby Club speech in 2008, an occasion where he allegedly spoke of struggling to resist the urge to “vomit on the Springbok jersey” and lamented South African rugby administration being “rotten to the core” and run by “Dutchmen”.

    The loose forward has mellowed to a good degree since then, generally displaying a more conciliatory nature and simply getting stuck into the business – sometimes in genuine lead-from-the-front fashion – of trying to convince the southern hemisphere that newcomers the Kings belong in Super Rugby.

    Newlands has a culturally diverse rugby public, plus plenty of enthusiasts simply prepared to doff their hats to decent players regardless of their allegiance or heritage, and few could deny that Watson brings many admirable qualities to the playing field specifically.

    So if some hostility to his presence quickly becomes apparent – and he must be fairly used to that phenomenon countrywide by now – expect also no lack of warmth from sections of the terraces.

    Port Elizabeth-born Watson’s tenure at the famous old ground may have featured some of the biggest “flashpoint” moments of his career, but it was also marked by his full-blooded contribution to periods where a Stormers and WP revival in terms of trophy challenges occasionally flickered promisingly.

    The sometimes open-side flank, sometimes No 8 led the franchise for generous periods of his Cape Town stint, and probably came closest to giving them something to place in the cabinet in 2009, his swansong season, when Province were pipped 21-19 in a thrilling Currie Cup home semi-final by the Blue Bulls, Morne Steyn breaking local hearts with a tricky-angled 77th-minute penalty to complete the scoring after giant wing Sireli Naqelevuki’s critical mistake.

    It was after that close call that Watson bade farewell to WP Rugby (he had played more than 100 games for them across Super Rugby and Currie Cup) and headed for his stint in the English Premiership with Bath.

    During his years at Newlands, Watson also produced some of the best personal rugby of his career thus far: in 2006 for instance, he was named South African Super 14 player of the year, with some statistics showing him to be the second most effective fetcher in the competition behind All Black icon Richie McCaw.

    That season, the Stormers also had respected, established Springboks Joe van Niekerk and Schalk Burger among their assets at loose forward.

    Watson’s last match at Newlands, that Currie Cup semi in 2009, saw him in starting alliance with Francois Louw (who coincidentally now plays for Bath) and the currently injured Duane Vermeulen, who operated at blindside flank then with Watson as eighth-man.

    He was also very much a WP representative in 2007, when he made his much-publicised Bok debut against Samoa, despite known acrimony with national coach Jake White who had not wanted him anywhere near his plans, and refusal by established senior players to properly initiate him to the fold.

    While in Cape Town, Watson’s club allegiance was to SK Walmers, a side from the pre-unity non-racial fold, whose ranks had once famously welcomed an earlier generation of the Watson family.

     So symbolism will not be in short supply when Luke Asher Watson runs onto a likely soggy Newlands on Saturday ... even if, to this unavoidably divisive yet determinedly “driven” character, it could almost be said to be just another day at the rugby office.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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