Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Whatever the rights or wrongs of the phenomenon,
the personality and history of Luke Watson
, as much as the rugby player in him,
clearly continues to awkwardly stalk the terrain he treads in.
You didn’t have to be at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on
Saturday to pick up the unusually enthusiastic roar when substitute loose
forward Jacques Engelbrecht (no world-beater, whatever his often fearless
merits) replaced the labouring, controversial Kings captain early in the second
half of the unexpectedly clear-cut 34-0 Super Rugby reverse at the hands of the
Bulls on Saturday.
The reaction of a significant portion of the crowd of 46,000
was just as detectable to television viewers across the country.
Was it instructive, too, or purely coincidental that when
Watson went off at 0-20, the Kings stopped leaking points for all of 32
Later, in the SuperSport studio, straight-talking former
Springbok coach Nick Mallett was moved to venture that Watson had looked “very
underdone; very poor for his 50 minutes” in his comeback appearance from a
reasonably lengthy throat injury.
Mallett went further, suggesting it was a “destabilising
thing, him coming back (to a starting berth so soon)”.
Some observers would have simultaneously found some irony in
his frank assessment, given that Mallett has traditionally been a staunch ally
of the Kings’ director of rugby Alan Solomons – “Solly” was his assistant coach
during that record unbeaten run by South Africa in the late 1990s.
Ah, and that word “destabilising” ... presumably Mallett
meant it primarily in an immediate, situation-driven context, but there is also
a lobby ready to contend that Watson is eternally that kind of elephant in the
This, we cannot forget, is a man reportedly deemed “the
cancer of the team” by many squad-mates during his prickly little stint in the
Whatever the merits or demerits of the decision to
fast-track the nuggety loose forward back to the starting XV against the Bulls,
what could not be denied was that he was well below his known best levels of dynamic,
And divisive character that he is, someone like Watson must only
delight his army of detractors when he fails to cut the personal mustard.
Indeed, the pure bigots in their midst will gloriously
overlook aspects like his try-saving tackle in at least one instance when the
Bulls threatened the hard-pressed Kings’ line, and probably also the fact that
Engelbrecht, on this occasion, was no great shakes either after entering the
fray powered by such an elixir of public affection.
You do wonder, at times like that, whether the strongly
self-motivated Watson – give him some credit, he’s no emotional shrinking violet
– ever yearns anew for more welcoming climes.
In his stint at faraway Bath, for instance, he was branded
“inspirational” as a player and popular off the field by then coach Steve
In the unrelentingly complex, volatile South African
landscape, Watson and others in his sporting family seldom occupy any kind of
tranquil, birds-are-singing middle ground: adulation from one swollen
constituency, revulsion from another, and disconcertingly little in between.
Against that backdrop, Watson’s leadership of a Super Rugby
side will always carry an array of obvious pros and cons.
Who wouldn’t wish to be a fly on the wall when Solomons,
head coach Matt Sexton and others get down to the potentially delicate issue of
discussing whether to have Watson run out first from the tunnel against the
in-form Cheetahs in Bloemfontein this Saturday (19:10 kick-off)?
The one thing on the team brains trust’s side, should they
decide to limit Watson’s possible participation to a more measured kind this
time – ie, some game-time off the bench – is the purely rugby-based
justification of shaky present form.
Then again, they also say that the best way to restore a key
player to peak performance after a layoff is to get as many game miles beneath the
belt as possible, to make up for lost time.
But what we also know is that when the name Luke Watson
comes up, a good deal more than just “the game-plan for Saturday” can be
hovering tantalisingly within earshot of the agenda. Who would be so brave as to
stake their house on the designated skipper for 2013 being unanimously feted in
the dressing room?
A personal gut feel – and this comes from someone loath to ever
under-value Watson’s fine playing credentials when at best health and fitness –
is that any meaningful restoration of the Kings’ mojo at Free State Stadium is
likelier to come with seasoned midfielder Andries Strauss leading out the
troops against his former franchise.
Where that would leave Watson a little further up the road ...
well, does anyone have the definitive answer to that?
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