Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Gospel truth: Watson leaves Bath to pursue a goal broader than just rugby

Luke Watson told me that leaving Bath Rugby for a return to his native Eastern Province was the hardest decision he'd ever had to make. Here I give my take on the Bath skipper's impending departure.

On Sunday, the day before Luke Watson (pictured) announced he was to leave Bath Rugby and return to South Africa, he was on his knees.

"Making the biggest decisions in life requires a lot of prayer!" he said on his Twitter page before quoting Scripture, Luke's Gospel appropriately: "But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed."

Luke Watson is a Christian first, a rugby player second (or possibly third, what with his expanding family). This I learnt almost exactly a year ago when I conducted my first interview with him following his arrival at The Rec from Western Province.
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"My faith is the foundation of my life," he told me back then, that fierce, uncompromising look in his eyes. "I put everything behind that.

"When I had the opportunity of Bath coming up I realised that this is where God wanted me to be, that there was more than just rugby here – that God wanted to do a massive thing not only within the club but within the city."

But the very thing that Watson believes brought him to Bath last November – his faith – has now guided him back to South Africa. His home town of Port Elizabeth, to be precise.

No doubt many secular Bath fans will find this hard to understand – and hard to stomach, too – but then the ex-Springbok has never been an easy player to understand. Never predictable, never boring, and always – you feel – just a few seconds away from making a decision that will wrong-foot a lot of people.

But the timing of the announcement is curious. Watson is not a man who does life in half measures, so why decide to leave Bath with a definite sense of 'mission unaccomplished'?

He only arrived at The Rec 13 months ago and was made captain in August. Surely he hasn't given himself enough time to accomplish the "massive" things he was so excited about this time last year. He's only played 29 games for Bath, and is leaving for a second-tier side.

Following the arrival of new owner Bruce Craig in April, Bath will have hoped that in Watson they'd found the right skipper to take them into their bold, cash-rich new era. The expectation will have been that Watson would provide a firm spine around which a new squad would develop.

That he has opted not to renew his contract will therefore have caused disappointment among the management, but – all things considered – I can't say I'm surprised Watson will be on his way in June.

I had heard in November that Eastern Province were interested in luring him back home on a better wedge than most people would expect from a second division side.

Then there's his South African wife to think of. She is due to give birth in early spring – a not insignificant variable in the Watsons' should-we- stay-or-should-we-go equation.

Life without a cause and a vision is, for Watson, a life not worth living. The vision he will take to Eastern Province is to build a fledgling club – of which his father, Cheeky, happens to be president – into a major power in the southern hemisphere game.

His faith is inextricably linked to a sense of social justice. Many of South Africa's black players have grown up in Eastern Province and Watson views a return to his home town as an opportunity to take the 'transformation' of a previously white-dominated game to a wider rugby audience.

But before all that, Watson has a tonne of work to do at Bath – 19 regular-season games, injury permitting.

And if he can bring to those games the kind of ebullience and leadership he showed against Leicester Tigers earlier this season at Welford Road, then that would be something every Bath Rugby fan could say 'Amen' to.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Ulster to bear the brunt of Moody's blues

Lewis Moody says his frustration at England’s defeat to South Africa will be channelled into Bath’s Heineken Cup clash this weekend.
The England skipper and Red Rose team-mates Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan and Davey Wilson are still smarting after the Autumn International series ended in defeat to the Springboks a fortnight ago.
Ulster will bear the brunt of that frustration, with Bath set to play the province at Ravenhill on Saturday in a match both sides must win if their European hopes are to remain alive.
“Coming back after the Autumn Internationals gives you more confidence as an individual,” Moody told me.
“But Shontayne, Banners and Davey, we all carry a fair amount of frustration following the defeat to South Africa, which is a game we know we could have won.
“I hope that frustration will be challenged into the Ulster game.”
Moody has a full house of silverware: a World Cup winner’s medal, along with multiple triumphs domestically and in Europe. But the flanker admits the Heineken Cup carries an intensity that rivals international games.
“It’s the biggest club competition you can be involved in and I’ve played in five Heineken Cup finals and won only two of them,” said the former Leicester Tiger. “I know how difficult it is to win.
“You come up against not only the best teams in Europe but probably the best teams in the world. If you pitted them against a lot of international sides a lot of those club teams would come off victorious.
“The levels of fitness, the speed the game is played at, the impacts - and the fact you can’t do as much analysis of the teams because you don’t play them week in, week out - all make the Heineken Cup particularly exciting.”

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Raising the fear factor - by rewinding the clock

So, the foundations have been dug but what will the new building materials be?

Bath Rugby's announcement this week that four forwards have extended their contracts is a solid base.

But there also needs to be some new faces – faces who will help build the Bath pack into a gruesome, fearsome monster.

How many top-flight packs fear the Bath tight five any more? Not many, I would wager. That's not to say the Bath pack isn't capable of great performances – remember that win against Wasps at Twickenham last April? The backs may have scored the tries but the forwards were a terrific, marauding mobile unit.

However, the Bath pack unquestionably currently lacks the 'stage presence' of, say, Saints or Leicester. There is no snarling Castrogiovanni or Mujati figure in the front row, while Danny Grewcock, who has just turned 38, is still intimidating as a ball-carrying lock but doesn't put divine fear into the opposition like he used to.

A case could be made for saying that the Bath pack has never been the same since Justin Harrison left at the end of the 2008-09 season, with his reputation in tatters after he admitted taking cocaine.

Harrison was a true Aussie sledger, a right old git on the pitch who was always stirring the opposition up into a veritable lather and the odd punch. He provided an aura of short-fused menace.

Strange thing was, he managed to blend that with real credibility as a leader – until he got caught with a Class A substance in his system.

Figures like Harrison can be tremendous motivators but their inherent inclination to self-destruct can ultimately make them more of a hindrance than a help.

This week, we give coverage in the Chronicle to a fantastic new book on Bath Rugby, After the Lemons. Among the most absorbing chapters is one on Roger Spurrell, pictured.

Arriving at The Rec in the year that I was born, Spurrell became the kind of steely skipper that made Bath such a gruesome prospect for so many clubs during the glory days.

Okay, so he was a flanker rather than in the tight five, but he surely captures the kind of over-my-dead- body mentality that Bath would do well to tap into.

I suggest leaving a copy in the changing room before the next game at The Rec.