‘How Bosasa lawyer pressured Jake White to make Luke Watson a Bok’
Strong-arming Bok coach, alongside Zondo evidence, shows how Watson family flaunted its political muscle
In 2007, about halfway through the Super 14, Jake White, the Springbok coach, took a phone call from his lawyer requesting a meeting with him and Craig Livingstone, White’s agent. White’s lawyer said he had “something important” to propose to him.
In his autobiography, In Black and White, the Jake White Story, written with journalist Craig Ray, White recalls that at the meeting they spoke about some legal issues before the lawyer dropped the bomb: “Listen guys, I’ve been asked to meet with you on behalf of the Watson family.”
Nothing is elementary when it comes to the dear Watson family, led by Cheeky and his son Luke. White did not rate Luke Watson as a player and did not want to pick him. The Watson family were politically connected and brought that weight to bear on White.
The offer, White’s lawyer told him, was simple. These were the demands: Luke Watson must play for the Boks and go to the World Cup in France. If White agreed, then he would work in SA rugby after the 2007 World Cup. If he didn’t, then he would not “coach the team to the World Cup”.
White’s lawyer warned him his phone was bugged, that a story would break in the media about a third force running SA rugby and that he would be linked to this mysterious third force. White went away and had a think about it. The path of least resistance would be to take the deal and stop the constant pressure to pick Luke Watson and the negativity around that.
He decided to take the deal, but when Livingston contacted the lawyer he was told the Watsons had got cold feet. The deal was off.
White’s lawyer was one Brian Bierbuyck. The same Brian Bierbuyck who was the lawyer of the Bosasa group of companies that has had their dirty laundry aired at the Zondo commission into state capture by Angelo Agrizzi. The same Bierbuyck who was accused by Agrizzi of offering him a R50m bribe for his silence on the company’s alleged corruption of state officials. The same Bierbuyck whose name is mentioned by Bosasa CEO Gavin Watson, Luke’s uncle, as he counts stacks of cash, stating that Bierbuyck would handle “Patrick [Gillingham, a senior correctional services official and one of those allegedly bribed by Bosasa] independently”. He was the same Bierbuyck Cheeky Watson denied ever knowing in 2007 when White’s book came out: “Neither I nor Luke know Brian Bierbuyck. The only contact I have ever had with him was when Luke terminated his business involvement with Craig Livingstone.”
Why White would have the same lawyer as the Watsons is a puzzler. That he agreed to accept the deal may be disappointing to some, but 2007 was a desperate time to be the Bok coach. I spent a lot of time around the Springboks in 2007 and the pressure on them was immense, the political storm that raged around them astounding in its ferocity and underhandedness. The attempts to force Luke Watson into the Springboks was an ugly sideshow that became the main attraction in a World Cup year.
Watson was the 46th player announced by SA Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins for the training camp in Bloemfontein ahead of the Super 14 final against White’s wishes.
Even during the training camp, the Watson presence was heavy. I wrote a story for The Star from the camp, noting that Joe van Niekerk had bench-pressed 150kg and Watson 140kg. The day after it printed, Cheeky Watson called someone who knew someone at The Star. This McCallum fellow was writing nonsense.
My editor, Moegsien Williams, told me I was wrong. Luke Watson had benched 160kg. I had counted the weights going on to the bar. I told him I was sure I was right. Williams was insistent we print an immediate and prominent correction. It was puzzling. Why this anger and fury? Did they think I was trying to insult Luke by 20kg?
It became dafter. Vusi Kama, the Bok media manager, wanted to send out an official media release saying I was wrong. White and Hoskins told him it was ludicrous, but Kama, under instruction from Saru vice-president Mike Stofile, ignored them and sent out the release. White and Hoskins were furious.
Twenty kilograms. All that effort to add 20kg. But, then, as we have been hearing these past weeks, the Watsons are not afraid to throw their weight around. Life, though, sometimes comes back at you hard.
In December Cheeky Watson pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud and money laundering from his time as president of Eastern Province rugby. Luke Watson retired a few years ago. The family is seemingly done with rugby and rugby is done with them.