By Fiona Forde

It was 1976 and South Africa was burning.

Cheeky Watson was 21, and he was running with the ball against the political tide. He had begun to play rugby with black guys, in the townships, against the law of apartheid.

And for that he would pay dearly and would be outlawed for the rest of his life from white South African rugby.

"Everything that was black was a danger then," he recalls.

But that did little to deter Cheeky and his brother Valance from working up a storm in fields around the country and building up an incredible black following on the sidelines.

Wherever they played, thousands gathered. They were popularising rugby in the townships, and the townships were rapidly politicising them.

Cheeky, who was born Daniel, grew up on a farm in Somerset East, a rural town 160km outside Port Elizabeth.

His father was a lay preacher and committed Christian and instilled in his four sons (Gavin, Ronnie, Valance and Cheeky) the belief that all men are equal.

"We were Born Again, but with a bit of a difference," he explains with a coy grin.

Colour was never an issue in the Watson household. The boys were fluent in Xhosa and wouldn't think twice about playing with the farm labourers' sons and daughters.

They slept under one roof and ventured off for weekends into the countryside together.

Cheeky first encountered rugby when he went to boarding school in Grahamstown and stuck with it through his years of national service.

In 1976 he played for the provincial team against the All Blacks, "a game we lost by only one point. One point," he says emphatically, "because the referee cheated."

But Cheeky played a good game and was featured prominently on the front pages of the newspapers the following day.

Then Mona Badela made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Badela was a journalist with The Herald, in PE, and the president of the KwaZakhele Rugby Union, or Kwaru.

You're a Christian, aren't you," Badela cunningly asked.

"I am," replied Cheeky.

"Then why don't you exercise your Christian principles and go to the townships and coach the blacks."

A few evenings later he and Valance rolled up at a soccer pitch in a local township where a team of black men were togged out.

The pitch was run down. It was almost triangular in shape. There was no lighting. Three cars had parked facing the pitch, beaming their headlights forward. Two had only one light working. The players were wearing football boots, not all of them matching.

"But none of that mattered. What grabbed us was how these guys ran with the ball.

"It was like watching the French play rugby. Their talent blew me away."

In a generous, but innocent move, Cheeky decided to exercise their talents at the St George's sports ground in Port Elizabeth, the historic site that staged the country's first cricket test as well as first rugby test.

It was also where the locals would often stretch their legs and allow their dogs to ramble. The affluent community didn't see any wrong in that.

But it was an entirely different matter when the Watson boys walked in with two dozen black men in tow.

It was one thing for the rich man's dogs to do their business on the well kept grass, but not for a black man to set foot on it.

"And the establishment came down on us," says Cheeky, clearly animated now as he recalls the wrath they first encountered. "And the tension, the tension?"

And he's talking as if it was yesterday, vividly reliving every moment of those times.

His family were quickly ostracised from the PE community and a gap was formed that would take decades to bridge.

Heads would turn the other way rather than face one of the young Watsons in their path.

Locals would fall out of their step when they would saw Cheeky strolling down the street holding a black man's hand. People would get up and sit elsewhere in the church if a Watson sat down next to them.

But worse would come when Cheeky and Valance played their first game with Kwaru against Sedru on October 10 that year, in the Dan Qeqe stadium in KwaZakhele township.

Two white men, and 13 blacks united on one side at the height of apartheid.

The local authorities appealed to them not to do it. Cheeky wanted to know why.

"But they couldn't give me an answer," he says.

The president of the Crusaders Rugby Club paid him a visit, telling him it wouldn't be wise for the game to go ahead.

Again, the 21-year-old hothead wanted to know why. No reasonable answer was forthcoming, so Cheeky went ahead with his game plan.

"Go for it. I'm in full support of you," Dan Watson told his sons the day of the match.

But it was different story for "Mum", who Cheeky describes as a "toffee-nosed, English- speaking woman".

By the time democracy dawned in 1994, "the poor woman had lost every hair on her head" because of the road her boys chose to walk.

There was no turning back after that historic October game. While the black community welcomed them into the fold, the white community cut them off completely.

Their friends dropped off like flies - only years later would they learn that anyone who used to call on the Watson home would receive a call from the authorities requesting, in no uncertain terms, that they curtail their visits or face the consequences.

The Watsons also received regular threats.

They could no longer travel freely into the townships for rugby practice, or to play a game, always under the shadow of arrest for their illegal behaviour.

They resorted to travelling in the car boot or lying low on the floor of a Kombi

"The funny thing is that the very system that was trying to break me down was actually politicising me," says Cheeky.

But in real political terms, Cheeky was still wet behind the ears. He recalls a man asking if he would be interested in joining the PAC. "I said, 'no thanks. I already belong to a club'," proud of his Kwaru credentials.

The response was polite. "Don't worry. We'll talk about it another time."

But politics didn't take long to follow. By 1978 the Watson family were staunch ANC and SACP followers caught up in the South African struggle.

Although Cheeky wanted to go into exile and train with the comrades, he was told he could do more work on the ground at home.

Instead, Ronnie spent the following years forever in and out of the country gathering intelligence for the activists.

The rugby continued and each Friday night the entire team would stay over at the Watsons' large family home - burned to the ground in 1986.

"But at that stage, it was an open house, and you'd never know who you would find at the table when you'd go down for breakfast in the morning."

The family business, a drapery that sold high-end American imports, adapted many times over the years.

When the boycotts kicked in Watson's was the only shop the black community would do business with.

They began to service the community's needs, "and the next thing you know, it's like a two-bit store", says Cheeky.

From haute couture and designer shoes, to baby's bottles, nappies and steel baths, Watson's became a one-stop shop for everyone.

"When I think back, it was like a nest," says the 53-year-old.

Years would pass until the struggle reached a climax in 1994 and democracy finally dawned. But Cheeky had been forced to hang up his boots in 1991, due to injury.

He's now a business consultant and over the past few years he and his wife Tracy have set up home in Newlands.

But events over the past while have forced the former player to believe that the struggle is far from over in rugby.

Today, he is watching history repeat itself in ways he never imagined possible again.

"Luke represents everything about the non-racial struggle in sport because of what his family stands for. But you have this small grouping that would not like to see Luke rise to a position, because they are still trying to control rugby."

In a frank tone, Cheeky argues there is "a small right wing element" in society today that "would like to see this democracy fail".

"And because rugby is so representative of white supremacy, that element is more prevalent in rugby than anywhere else", run by "a group of people who have never rid themselves of the apartheid cap".

Get over it, is his message to what he once again refers to as the "third force".

Look at New Zealand, he argues, where there is a Polynesian majority in the sport.

"It has taken the white New Zealand player to another level, because competition is good, competition is very good."

"Recognise it, and develop it, but don't kill it," Cheeky concludes.