HAVING had months in which to reflect on Edinburgh’s first season under Mike Blair, Hamish Watson has come to a settled verdict on that memorable campaign. The capital club’s openside is confident that considerable progress was made during that 2021-22 season, but by the same token is just as convinced that there is still considerable room for improvement.
Above all, Watson believes his team need to become more clinical if they are to compete consistently with the leading teams in the BKT United Rugby Championship. The adventurous style of play introduced by Blair will remain: its implementation by the players simply needs to be sharper, more ruthless.
“I guess in the end it was kind of annoying the way the season ended,” Watson said at last week’s URC season launch. “I think we always knew that the quarter-final away at the Stormers was going to be a tough game. Although we were in it, and could have won it, we knew that was always going to be a tough match-up.
“Realistically, we probably lost it when we didn’t beat Ulster at home that day and we could have got the home quarter-final. I think that was the big game for us – arguably almost bigger than the quarter-final, because to get the home quarter would have made a big difference.
“We did maybe just fade away a little bit at the end of the season, but as a whole I thought we had a really good season. First season under Mike, it’s never easy coming in and trying to embed the cultures that you want to change and the playing styles that need changing, and I thought he did that really well.
“You saw the balance he had in the team, and the guys he’s brought in since then. I think the squad is in a really good place. We’ve got a few big players coming back from injuries, so I think Edinburgh is in a pretty good place going into the new season.”
Bill Mata is back, Sam Skinner is among the players to have joined, and Magnus Bradbury is among the significant departures. Away from the playing side, the biggest change is at defence coach, where Michael Todd from Queensland has joined to replace Benetton-bound Callum MacRae.
“We lost Kitty – that’s a bit of a change, so we don’t get the continuity there,” Watson added. “But Toddy has come in and he looks really good, and a positive guy: he says similar things to Kitty, the same sorts of principles, so there shouldn’t be too much of a change there.
“And apart from that, nothing really changes for us. I think probably being a bit more clinical. When we look back at last season, I think our attack was really good and up there with most line-breaks in the URC, most tackle-breaks and all the right stuff. But I think the thing we were probably lacking was our conversion rate once we got down in that 22. We didn’t turn many of those line-breaks into points at times and I think we can definitely be a bit more clinical. So that’s definitely something we’re looking at working on in pre-season and hopefully getting better going into the season.”
In common with some of the other Edinburgh players who toured with Scotland in the summer, Watson may still have two or three weeks’ strength-and-conditioning work to go through before he plays again. But whoever takes part in Saturday’s opening match against the Dragons – a fixture which, the URC announced yesterday, will go ahead as planned – the team are sure to play in the same style which was so enjoyable to watch last season.
Edinburgh will have lost the element of surprise they enjoyed during that campaign, but that does not worry Watson, who pointed out that knowing what your opponents are going to do and stopping them from doing it are two very different things. “I guess you lose the element of surprise after the first game once you see the way we are playing,” he added. “It’s one thing knowing how we want to play and another thing stopping it.
“We still want to do what we’re doing last season, but we need to be a bit more clinical and need to know when to chuck those offloads and when we’re down there we need to come away with points. Not much really changes for us, and I guess it’s for teams how they learn to deal with that.”
In addition to having a new head coach last season, Edinburgh had a new stand-off – Blair Kinghorn, whose move up from full-back was emblematic of the more assertive, adventurous style adopted by the team. Watson believes his Scotland team-mate adapted really well to the new position, and is confident that Kinghorn can continue to mature in his new position during this campaign.
“I think last season he was amazing. He’s up there with the most exciting 10s in the league. You know that when Blair’s on the ball he can always do something from anywhere, whether that’s his own 22 or the opponents’ 22, and it’s quite nice having a 10 like that. It’s exciting and he can spark something from nothing. He’s going into only his second full year at 10 so you might expect the odd little error, but I think what he’s doing at 10 at the moment for club and country has been really good.
“I’ve never played 10, but I can imagine it’s pretty tough. I don’t think it’s ever going to be easy for someone to change from 15 to 10. I know he played a bit when he was younger, in age-grade stuff, but I think the way he adapted and how quickly he adapted, he did a great job for us.”