Jon Cardinelli

Cheeky’s a born fighter

JON CARDINELLI, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, says Cheeky Watson is determined to finish what he started and is not fazed by negative public opinion or criticism of the Kings’ inclusion in Super Rugby.

‘What’s your name?’ demands Cheeky Watson. He doesn’t wait for me to answer. He whips out his phone and dials in one fluid movement. ‘What’s the name of the journalist who wrote all that kak about us for a magazine last year?’ he asks the person on the other end of the line. ‘Oh, I see.’ He puts the phone away. He smiles. ‘If that was you, I would’ve let you have it,’ he says. ‘Because that’s how I am.’

That’s how Cheeky Watson is. I was told of his combative nature before I departed for Port Elizabeth. Many of the people I’d spoken to had their own ideas about Watson, their own perceptions about his role as president of the Eastern Province Rugby Union and as chairman of the Southern Kings franchise. One colleague laughed when he heard I would be travelling to the Eastern Cape. ‘Be careful,’ he said, ‘it really is the wild, wild West.’

And now, sitting in a cavernous office located in the shadow of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, I find myself face to face with a gunslinger; a man who shoots from the hip, a man who relishes confrontation. As Watson himself doesn’t mind telling me, he was born to fight.

Is there a less popular figure in South African rugby? Probably not. Indeed, Watson has been fighting the system his entire life, fighting as an anti-apartheid activist in the 1970s, and fighting now for the development of rugby in the long neglected Eastern Cape.

He’s made a lot of enemies. He’s been opposed by colleagues at Saru. He’s disliked by the majority of rugby people across the country, and is painted by the media as South African rugby’s chief antagonist.

All that being said, Watson has still managed to come out on top. The fight and the sacrifice hasn’t been for nothing. The 2013 season has seen the Kings debuting in Super Rugby, and for Watson, that’s a landmark.

‘The fight to get Super Rugby in this region has been a dogfight in the trenches,’ he explains. ‘In the past, you thought you had Super Rugby, and then suddenly you didn’t. Then you thought you had it again, and then once again, you didn’t. But watching the players run out on to the field in that first game [against the Western Force], seeing a very vocal support base at the stadium, and seeing that crowd representing the demographics of this country ... for me, that was a great moment. That was when it all felt real. That was more important than the result.

‘That’s what’s unique about this region,’ he continues. ‘You have equal support over black, coloured and white communities, and that is why this is such a vital cog in the transformation of rugby in this country. That may not transcend into the team right now, but if you consider that it was only announced on 16 August 2012 that we would participate in 2013, and that we only had two months to prepare from 1 November 2012 onwards, what else could be expected? Unless we adopted the position of God, when he took dust, and breathed some life into that dust to create Adam ... that’s what we would’ve needed to do to field players truly representative of the demographics in this region.’

There is strength in the delivery of this statement, and a patent anger behind the words. For too long, Saru has dragged its feet with regard to development of rugby in the Eastern Cape, and last year’s decision to grant the Kings entry to Super Rugby amounted to nothing more than a token gesture.

Rugby’s governing body had promised the region a place in this elite tournament as far back as 2007, and when it finally made good on its word in 2012, there was a catch. The Kings were guaranteed just one year in the competition, instead of the initially proposed three.

Many of the players targeted by the Kings refused to commit to the franchise for just one season. And because of the late confirmation, the franchise lost out on five more players of colour who were, in fact, willing to take the risk of a one-year contract.

‘Those players, all of whom were from the Eastern Cape, were only able to hold out until the end of July 2012.  That’s why we were pushing for that announcement to be made sooner so that we could bring them back. But, as you know, the announcement was made on 16 August,’ Watson says, repeating the date for effect. ‘If we had the guarantee of three years in Super Rugby, things would have been very different. We would have signed a lot more players.’

Watson also pointed to the difficulties of signing a title sponsor with only a one-year Super Rugby guarantee, though he will have heaved a sigh of relief when the Aveng Group came on board for the season.

And yet, despite the hand the Kings have been dealt, Watson believes the Eastern Cape franchise will defy expectations and survive to see another season. He reiterates that they are not only fighting for their future in Super Rugby, but for the further development of an important region, a region that may eventually allow the Springboks to be more representative.

‘It would be a major setback to miss out next year,’ he says. ‘If you think about it, it would be in Saru’s interest to see that this region stays in the competition. We need to use the prime example of a player who has recently come through, and that player is Sergeal Petersen [the Grey High School alumnus who scored a brace and won the Man of the Match award in the first game]. And there’s many more where Sergeal came from.

‘Sixty percent of the players at our academy are players of colour, and more than 90% are from within this region. We’re doing very well there. We’ve lost a few academy players through the cracks, players who have moved to franchises that have longevity.’ He emphasises that word as if it’s a basic right every franchise should enjoy. ‘But I do believe we’ve managed to net most of them.

‘Last year I watched a schools match between Grey High and Dale College. There were a lot of black players. Then you have Queen’s College who are fielding a predominantly black team, you have Selborne College which is 50/50. I’m going to say that by 2015, the players of colour will make up between 50 and 60% of our Super Rugby team. There’s tremendous talent in this region. It’s a matter of bringing them through.’

Talk to the coaches and administrators in the region, and they will tell you that Watson has been instrumental in the revival of Eastern Cape rugby. He may not be liked by most of the rugby public outside the Eastern Cape, and there are even those within his home province who grumble about his robust nature and management style. However, what those of the latter group still concede is that Watson has been indispensable to the Eastern Cape’s cause.

And contrary to what’s been said in the media, and what’s led to the surrounding vitriol, the Kings are not responsible for the Lions’ relegation from Super Rugby. The Kings were always going to feature in 2013.

‘What the public don’t understand is that our entrance to Super Rugby was supposed to be in 2011,’ Watson explains. ‘I was approached at the time, and my attitude was that we could not do that to the Lions. Kevin de Klerk had just been elected, and when I met with him, I said we couldn’t force this down their throats.

‘It’s not that we withdrew because we weren’t ready. We withdrew on the premise that we couldn’t allow the Lions to drop out on such short notice. We then said to the Lions, “Entrance for the Kings is in 2013, so we are giving you this time to get your house in order and to ensure that you’re not bottom of the log [come 2012].”’

Watson is not at all concerned about the negativity towards himself and the franchise. ‘I’ve never been a populist,’ he says. ‘I’m not worried about what people think of me. I was hated in the early-70s for the stance I took, and I’ve taken controversial stances in this country when it’s come to rugby. I’ve been disliked many, many times, but I’m not here for the popular vote. I’m here to do God’s bidding. Being president of EP rugby and chairman of the Kings is all part of God’s plan, not so much for me, but for this region.

‘A lot of me being painted the villain has more to do with the ghosts of the past than it has to do with the Lions going down. It has more to do with the ’70s and non-racism, with me being an anti-apartheid activist. Those ghosts are still hanging out there. So whether I blow my nose, or I sneeze, those ghosts are going to come out.’

For the first time in the interview, he looks more tired than defiant. ‘Is this a fight you believe you can win?’ I ask. ‘In a sense, the fight has only just begun. Doesn’t that thought exhaust you?’

Watson sighs. He says giving up is not an option.

‘You know, there are certain characters in this life, from the day they’re born, they’re tagged with fighting a war. If you look at our director of rugby, Alan Solomons, he is one of those characters. God put a tag on his head and said, “You’re gonna fight for the rest of your life, you’re not going to have the time to rest and find peace”.

‘I was thankful to have him by my side when no one else wanted to stand next to me. I approached top coaches in this country, but they felt the task was too big. And you know, when we look at the Old Testament of the Bible, when they ask, “Who is going to go and fight the war and spy out the land?” Joshua and Caleb, the old men, reply: “Give us the mountain, and we’ll climb it”. So Alan and I started this journey together. Occasionally, you do get a little bit tired. Yes, you get disillusioned, and yes, sometimes you get disappointed. But unfortunately, we’ve got that tag on our heads to fight, so we will continue to fight.’

I offer Watson the opportunity to paint an ideal picture. If the Kings could survive until 2016, a year where a new broadcast deal may be brokered and all six South African franchises could be accommodated in an expanded tournament, how far could they go? He doesn’t waste a nano-second.

‘In five to 10 years, this will be the biggest franchise in world rugby. It was Professor Willie Basson who did a survey a few years back and said the growth of rugby in South Africa is in the Eastern Cape. We just need to look at the transformation in some of the schools I’ve mentioned. If you look at the players Grey High has produced over the past few years, like Siya Kolisi or Sergeal Petersen, schools are transforming more and more, and we are finding more kids who are wanting to play rugby. It’s vitally important that these kids have an icon to look up to. I believe without a shadow of a doubt, that five years from now, we’ll be one of the top Super Rugby franchises. Ten years from now, we’ll be the biggest franchise in world rugby.’

Watson truly believes that the Kings will prevail despite the odds. What he cannot hope to do at this point, however, is change the minds of those who are determined to hate him and the Kings regardless of any success they may enjoy.

‘Many people attach the rise of this franchise to a political decision rather than to a rugby decision. And I think that has a lot to do with the personalities involved. Alan is not the most popular man in the country, nor am I the most popular fellow, nor is the captain [Luke Watson] the most popular fellow, so there’s always a lot of anger that comes out.

‘Alan appointing a foreign coach [former Crusaders hooker Matt Sexton] stirred a bit of ire, as has the signing of the foreign players, and with that people tend to forget about reasonableness or look at the cards we’ve been dealt. People focus on an anger that’s directed towards the personalities. They overlook the reason a New Zealander was appointed, they forget that others were approached beforehand. Those coaches turned the challenge down because they saw it as insurmountable.’

It’s a fear Watson himself clearly doesn’t share.

– This article first appeared in the April issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, which is distributed FREE with the newspaper on the second last Friday of the month.

Photo: Michael Sheehan/BackpagePix

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