David Flatman: Gospel truth? Luke Watson's a Godlike genius

From the Front Row: We're sad that our laugh-a-minute South African is heading home, but he has taught me that religion can be cool... almost
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The Independent Online

Let's face it, we've all got an opinion on Luke Watson. When his signing for Bath was announced last season he instantly became an enigma, a man admired by some but acerbically berated by others.

Everyone seemed to know his story inside out and he was promptly declared hero or monster by a load of blokes who had never met him. We talked of his father, the anti-apartheid activist "Cheeky", and of the infamous speech that Luke gave at Cape Town University, where he said he had to struggle "to keep himself from vomiting" on the Springboks jersey. We talked of his selection through nepotism for South Africa and his subsequent exclusion. We knew it all, or so we thought.

Then he arrived, and wow. It is fair to say I have never met anyone quite like Luke. This is a man who doesn't feel nervous, ever. He smiles and laughs, all day. He loves his life. This is not a man battling with demons past, this is a man absolutely at peace with his actions and absolutely confident – certain – that things will be all right, that he will be provided for.

Luke must have been brought up to be confident, that much is sure, but there is something else, something fortifying his strength and rock-solid assertiveness, and this is his faith. One important thing to note is that he never brings up the subject of religion, but he will gladly talk freely about his beliefs when he is asked. He describes his version of Christianity and how he has, almost, customised it to fit perfectly with his perception of the modern world.

Now I am not a particularly spiritual person but I must say, the way he talks to me makes sense. It is less Songs of Praise than I always presumed it must be, more relaxed and accommodating. There are fewer rules and there is far more room for freedom of thought in his world than there was at my Sunday school as a child. It's almost cool. Almost.

Not so cool, mind you, that it stops David Barnes, our most inappropriate player, giving him stick every day for it. "Lukey won't be out for a beer this weekend, Jebus won't let him," says Barnes, using the phraseology of Homer Simpson. "This is why I love you, Barn," replies Luke, "because just when I thought you couldn't make yourself seem any more stupid, you manage it."

Despite his notoriety, Luke does not fall into the oldest of social traps by taking himself too seriously. He is the first to dish out the banter toward other players and, in turn, loves getting a bit back too. Rugby learned a long time ago that a good bit of mickey-taking was surely the best way to make a newcomer feel welcome, and we didn't hang about with Luke. "Just read John Smit's book," I said to him on the team bus. "I'll say one thing for him, he's a great judge of character." In said book, South Africa's World Cup-winning captain had described Luke as cancerous and divisive, so I hoped the new boy would take it as a joke. "At least I got a mention, brother, I don't think he knows who you are," he shot back with a grin. That shut me up, for a minute or two anyway. As it happens, there are 40 men in this squad who would label Smit's observations as ridiculous.

Then we learned about his habit: Luke is an addicted texter. His chubby little thumbs will be pumping day and night, sending out tweets, emails and jokes alike. At one point last March, I laughed so loud at one of his messages that Leicester's Ben Youngs, sat next to me, demanded to see what I was looking at. After reading through all of Luke's old messages he declared him a legend. "Bit strong," I said, "he's only five foot nine, and most legends are taller than that." Youngs agreed but said he would still love to meet him, to find out what makes him tick.

He might not get the chance now, though, as Luke has decided to return to South Africa to play for the Kings, for him a hometown franchise he hopes to help through the ranks. This is his dream and, sad as we are to lose such an amazing bloke and player, we all feel happy the opportunity presented itself at the right time. "Lucky bit of timing, hey mate?" quipped Barnes, hours after the announcement. "Luck's got nothing to do with it, my man," said Luke. "If it was right, it was always gonna happen."

What a wonderful way to look at life; maybe Harry Secombe was on to something...