Watson: Kings-size headache

2013-04-23 00:00

CAPE TOWN — The personality and history of Luke Watson, as much as the rugby player in him, clearly continue to stalk the terrain he treads in.

You didn’t have to be at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday to pick up the enthusiastic roar when substitute loose forward Jacques Engelbrecht replaced the labouring Kings captain early in the second half of the 34-0 Super Rugby defeat at the hands of the Bulls on Saturday.

The reaction of a big part of the crowd of 46 000 was clear to television viewers across the country.

Was it purely coincidental that when Watson went off at 0-20, the Kings stopped leaking points for all of 32 minutes?

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 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 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.

And that word “destabilising” … presumably Mallett meant it in the context of the immediate situation, but there is also a lobby ready to contend that Watson is that kind of elephant in the room.

This, we cannot forget, is a man reportedly deemed “the cancer of the team” by many team-mates during his prickly little stint in the Springbok set-up.

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 best levels of dynamic, multi-skilled performance.

And divisive character that he is, someone like Watson must only delight his army of detractors when he fails to cut the mustard.

Indeed, the bigots will gloriously overlook aspects like his try-saving tackle when the Bulls threatened the hard-pressed Kings’ line and the fact that Engelbrecht was no great shakes either after entering the fray.

One wonders whether the strongly self-motivated Watson — give him some credit, he’s no shrinking violet — ever yearns for more welcoming climes.

In his stint at faraway Bath, for instance, he was branded “inspirational” as a player by coach Steve Meehan and was popular off the field.

In the complex, volatile South African landscape, Watson and others in his sporting family seldom occupy any kind of tranquil 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 pros and cons.

Who wouldn’t wish to be a fly on the wall when Solomons and head coach Matt Sexton get down to the delicate issue of discussing whether to have Watson run out first from the tunnel against the in-form Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday?

If the team’s brains trust decide to limit Watson’s participation to some game-time off the bench they will be justified on the basis of the Kings’ shaky form.

Then again, it’s often said that the best way to restore a key player to peak performance after a layoff is to get as many games beneath the belt as possible to make up for lost time.

But we also know that when the name Luke Watson comes up, a good deal more than just “the game plan for Saturday” is on the agenda.

Who would be so brave as to stake their house on the designated skipper for 2013 being unanimously fêted in the dressing room?

My gut feeling is that any meaningful restoration of the Kings’ mojo at Free State Stadium is likelier to come with seasoned midfielder Andries Strauss leading the troops against his former franchise.

Where that would leave Watson … well, does anyone have the definitive answer to that?

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