The flair for derring-do persists – last weekend, the Eastern Province Rugby Union president escaped floodwaters through the sunroof of his luxury sedan near Port Elizabeth. All well and good, but can his Southern Kings defy the force of rugby gravity by surviving in the Super rugby firmament for longer than a season?
The odds are remote, and Watson has attacked the South African Rugby Union’s refusal to guarantee the new Port Elizabeth franchise the adjustment periods given to the Lions and Cheetahs, who both enjoyed years of cosseted safety from relegation.
Saru aren’t budging, so Watson, CEO Anele Pamba and head coach Alan Solomons have a double-barrelled problem.
They must build a viable squad from scratch, while simultaneously fulfilling the urgent political mandate that justified their promotion – to trigger the deep transformation of South African rugby from the capital of its black heartland. Up in the presidential suite at Nelson Mandela Stadium, Watson is in his element – surrounded by old “strugby” comrades, many of them now luminaries of Port Elizabeth’s business and political elite.
He treasures the camaraderie.
“In this region, we’ve always been fighters,” he says.
“Black, white, coloured – ever since the colonial wars. We’ll take this hand we’ve been dealt, and make the best of it. Look at Leonidas with his 300 Spartans, or King David with his army of drunkards and ragamuffins. They won wars. That’s where we’re at.
“We will only rest when the team is representative of all the demographics of South Africa. And when we hold the Super rugby trophy aloft,” he says.
It’s hard to tell which mission will prove tougher. At the final whistle of the Eastern Province Kings’ hard-fought Currie Cup victory over the Falcons, there was only one South African player of colour on the pitch for the Kings, the promising centre Siyanda Grey.
Former Springbok team manager Zola Yeye, once Watson’s wing partner at Spring Rose club, has complained recently about the Kings’ milky complexion.
Watson, Pamba and Solomons all plead for patience.
“This doesn’t change overnight. Perhaps 80% of players of colour in the Super rugby franchises hail from this region. EP has been disadvantaged because it was never linked to a franchise, so there hasn’t been an incentive for a top player to stay,” says Watson.
Despite the lack of a big title sponsor to bankroll recruitment, Pamba and Solomons have been shopping hard. Pamba will announce eight new signings within the next fortnight.
“There are one or two current Boks among them, and some South Africans who have been based overseas,” says Pamba.
An Argentinian import is also on the cards, while Western Province flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis is signed up. Of the current side, only skipper Luke Watson and Jaco Engels are proven Super rugby campaigners, while the likes of Grey and fellow centre Lonwabo “Foxy” Ntleki are rated as potentially up to the mark.
One option would be to buy or borrow players from the relegated Lions – but it’s doubtful whether the Johannesburg franchise would be inclined to hand their aces to their usurpers – whom they will likely confront in a relegation-promotion playoff at the end of next Super season.
Solomons wants to reclaim seasoned Eastern Cape products, while protecting the laaities from poachers.
“Our slogan is ‘bring them home, keep them home’. Rugby has been allowed to disintegrate here. We have to build high-performance rugby from the top down, while transforming the union from the bottom up.”
Solomons, who assisted Nick Mallett during his 16-game unbeaten Bok run and coached Ulster to a four-year unbeaten home run, is arguably the Kings’ key signing to date. Born in Uitenhage and schooled at Grey, he brings a mix of partisan passion and progressive thinking.
Since leaving a position as the IRB’s high-performance consultant in 2010, Solomons has sparked a rugby renaissance in his home town. His first priority was to build a non-commercial academy, headed by Robbie Kempson. It’s already working: graduates include EP Kings forwards Thembelani Bholi, Lizo Nqoboka and Siya Mangaliso.
Solomons predicts a bumper crop of Bok-quality players.
“We have fantastic rugby schools like Dale College, who had an all-black team this year, and Queens, who had a mostly black side.”
Factor in Model C powerhouses such as Grey, Framesby and Brandwag and you have a potent base of elite youth rugby – and Pamba emphasises the Kings are looking for white talent and black.
The Kings will have a remarkable stadium on their side, and Solomons wants to forge in it the kind of fortress mentality that defined his Ulster side.
“We also have a cause here, that lends itself to something special – when you play for something greater than yourselves.”
The Watsons’ evangelical convictions about transformation have incensed the Afrikaans rugby establishment, where many still see the game as their cultural birthright and territory. It doesn’t help that Luke doesn’t do subtlety. In 2008, in a secretly taped speech, he ruined his international career by foolishly remarking that he suffered from a nauseous reaction to the Bok emblem.
Having abandoned a lucrative career with Bath, Watson Jnr now has a chance to make his case non-verbally by leading a representative side to success at rugby’s second-highest level.
“Luke has been unfairly labelled because he comes from a family that fought for liberation. I had nothing to do with his selection to Boks, or with his return to EP. Alan negotiated with Luke. Where I have to commend Luke is taking a serious pay cut to come back and be part of this dream,” says Cheeky.
Has the mind of white rugby opened a bit since the furore over Luke’s call-up?
Cheeky shakes his head: “No. We are very far behind with transformation. I’ve fought since 1976 for this, [and] the sooner we all admit that we’re not working hard enough on it, the better.”
Twenty years after unity, the Wallaby starting line-up features more black players – five – than the Bok line-up – three. Clearly it’s not just a question of working harder. We’re doing it wrong.