Durban - Over the years, there have been sportsmen who have been polarising figures - loved by some and absolutely hated by the rest.
Names like Clyde Rathbone and Kevin Pietersen come to mind, for obvious reasons. But, there’s one man in South Africa who has gone from being loved by everyone for being a fantastic rugby player to being the most hated individual in South African sport.
His name is Luke Watson, and he has recently retired from the game. We all know what happened to Luke.
He went from being good player for the Sharks to Western Province and Stormers captain to, according to former Springbok captain John Smit, a cancer in the national team.
As many may have seen, many reports over the last week or two have suggested that the former Springbok and Sharks fetcher has decided to hang up his boots, calling an end to a disappointing career.
I was in school at the same time, and in the same province as Luke.
Back then, he was regarded as the best schoolboy rugby player in the country, was the captain of the SA Schools side and on the path to stardom. He was going to become one of the all-time greats, mentioned in the same breath as Michael Jones and Josh Kronfeld. He was that good.
But, having been friends with a few of his classmates, I got the impression that he wasn’t a very nice guy to be around. He was one of those guys who believed the sun shone out of his backside and that if something didn’t revolve around him, it wasn’t worth it. The crude Afrikaans word for “box” comes to mind.
Nonetheless, he had enough talent to be likeable and for his personality to be overlooked.
The Springbok thing that happened - when his name was put in the team by SARU president Oregan Hoskins despite his not being picked by Jake White - was not his fault.
Luke was, unfortunately, unfairly ostracised and victimised. That was just one of the things that saw him become one of the most hated sportsmen in the country.
Then there was the incident when he was alleged to have said some very unsavoury things, about how South African rugby was still largely “run by Afrikaners” and that he wanted to “vomit on the Springbok jersey”.
He really went about endearing himself to the South African rugby public the wrong way. But Luke had always been one of the most outspoken players in South Africa, and when he saw injustice, he didn’t follow the example of other players who kept their mouths open.
Watson spoke out against the lack of transformation in the game, and about how very little has changed.
To understand Luke, one has to understand how he grew up; what he had to go through as a young child, and especially the role his father played in the fight against apartheid
I, for one, believe that the Southern Kings were sabotaged because people were unhappy seeing Daniel “Cheeky” Watson fulfil his dream of taking Super Rugby to the people of the Eastern Cape, the home of black rugby in South Africa.
Cheeky and his brother Valence were regarded as traitors by the old apartheid government because he refused to stop playing rugby in the township of Port Elizabeth with black people in the 1970s.
For many years, he was an outspoken critic against the system, and he was seen as an enemy of the state who sympathised with the “terrorists”.
And, in the years after the demise of apartheid, when a lot of players who had played rugby under the various segregated unions were handed their Springbok colours and blazers, Cheeky was denied the honour of wearing the green and gold.
When he said he wanted to vomit on the Springbok jersey, you have to understand all of the pain that jersey held for Luke. From being selected into a Springbok side and then being ostracised, to his father’s struggle and for what the jersey represented.
In 2016, the jersey and the emblem are still seen as being more important than equality and fairness.
I was disappointed when Luke left the Stormers and signed for Bath back in 2009 because I felt that at the age of 26 rugby fans in South Africa were deprived seeing a quality player in action. But, obviously he couldn’t stay in the country as every rugby player and his dog wanted to knock his block off and ship it back to PE, draped in the Vierkleur and the Springbok jersey.
Luke Watson - and his father - deserve more credit from the South African public because of everything they have done and continue to do. It’s a damn shame they’ve been vilified in everything they’ve tried to do.
And, yes, they’re no saints and have their flaws. But at the end of the day, they’ve done more for South Africa on and off the rugby field than you and I.