Words: Chris Hewitt
Luke Watson sits in silence. His face reflects the complex thought process that, for the briefest moment, overwhelms his usually inexhaustible energy. ‘It’s never been about how many times I fall,’ he states quietly, but with authority. ‘I’ve never seen that as a problem. All I’m concerned with is that I get up every time.’
Watson’s well-phrased and intelligent responses are as much a trademark as his ability to secure turnovers, but this time a solitary considered thought is all that he shares. It serves as the bridge that transforms him from introvert to extrovert, and in a second, the steel in the eyes fades into the more familiar mischievous glint.
His statement, short but exact, illuminates in the briefest flash the difficult period from which he has so recently emerged. It gives insight into the frustration of losing his place in the Absa Currie Cup team midway through last year, but more importantly, showcases his response to the setback. If there were moments of self-pity, they were buried in the avalanche of effort and sweat exerted during a pre-season from which he returned faster, fitter and stronger than ever before.
Watson’s lineage (he is the son of legendary anti-apartheid icon Cheeky Watson), faith-anchored life and success on the field mean the spotlight has seldom left him. When it did briefly last year, the only thought was one of preparing for its return. In Watson’s mind, resurgence was never a matter of if or how, but now.
‘The term destiny – I believe in it big time,’ he smiles. ‘People will look at the term destiny and say it’s like a fairy tale, where Cinderella gets her prince or whatever. I look at it differently. If I keep pushing myself to the limit, putting my body on the line, giving everything I’ve got, I know sooner or later it’s going to come.
‘I’m a very positive guy, probably the most positive guy I know – and I’m being objective. Nothing ever gets me down. I think it has a lot to do with my religious beliefs. Life is life, and there’s very little you can do to change a situation. All you can do is change your perception, change the way you see it. I’m living for the moment right now, I’m loving being with the Vodacom Stormers and enjoying every opportunity I get.’
Watson’s role as specialist fetcher is appropriate. The positional requirements demand a special kind of courage to slow ball down and attempt to steal at the breakdown, the willingness to step outside a comfort zone. It demands both an athlete and raw physical power; in a word, the extraordinary.
From a childhood spent sidelined as a result of his father’s heroic stand to captaincy of the SA Schools, SA U19 and SA U21 sides, Watson’s life is defined by that same word.
His performance against the Cats in the Vodacom Stormers’ opening encounter of the campaign, particularly in the second half, was evidence of how the explosive impact many expected him to make after transferring from the Sharks last year was beginning to ignite. The benefits accrued from a fanatical fitness regime were already evident.
Watson’s influence grew with the game, and he flourished in the final 20 minutes, setting an impressive precedent for the rest of the season.
His follow-up last weekend, in which he outplayed renowned Wallaby Phil Waugh, further underlined that fact.
‘Luke has been extraordinary for us so far this season,’ Vodacom Stormers coach Kobus van der Merwe enthuses. ‘I said a few weeks back that he’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen, and that has showed on the field as he has been making huge impacts on the games. He is not one to get ahead of himself, and that’s why I know this is going to be a big year for him. His exceptional talents coupled with a great work rate and attitude mean he’s a fine asset for us and a real weapon in every game he plays in.’
In isolation, Watson’s contribution thus far this year has been impressive. In combination with Schalk Burger, it’s been nothing short of destructive.
‘Schalk is a very good ball-carrier who is very difficult to tackle,’ Van der Merwe confirms. ‘He has a fetching role on the blindside as well, but his primary role in the context of our side is ball-carrying while providing a line-out option. He still plays to the ball after first phase, and I believe that role complements Luke very well. They nderstand each other’s games now and are forming a formidable artnership.’
With each week bringing with it an international opponent, there is little time for backslapping. Tonight, Watson directly opposes George Smith, the opensider he rates as the best in the world. It is the type of challenge he lives for.
Three years ago, the 19-year-old Watson secured consecutive Man of the Match awards against the Crusaders in Christchurch and the Brumbies in Canberra, teams that included Richie McCaw and Smith respectively. It propelled him to the verge of Springbok recognition.
Tonight, 22-year-old Watson seeks a repeat of those heroics, but with a new perspective that maturity breeds. He is no longer the unknown or the underdog, raw and blindly getting stuck in. No longer does he eagerly tear into newspapers to find assessments of his performances.
No longer does he seek the approval of others, just the satisfaction of reaching his own stringent standards.
Luke Watson does not hope to outplay Smith, the flanker he regards as the best in the world, he expects to.
The above article was first printed in “Don’t Blink” (Vodacom Stormers vs Brumbies), the official match magazine of the Vodacom Stormers.