Big in Japan: Hamish Watson forecasts fierce fight for back-row places

Scotland openside predicts form in first two warm-up games will be crucial to selection

Hamish Watson at a Scotland training session in St Andrews. Image: © Craig Watson.

FOR all of the talk of the competition for World Cup places being hotter than ever, you would expect Hamish Watson to be one of those most assured of his spot in the Scotland squad. The Edinburgh openside has long been one of the most reliably consistent performers available to Gregor Townsend – no mean feat in a position as demanding and dynamic as his – and enjoyed a reassuring return to action late last season after missing the early part of the year with a broken hand.

But needless to say, the man himself is taking nothing for granted. While conceding that players’ previous form has to have some influence on the selectors, Watson believes that this month’s first two warm-up games – against France in Nice on Saturday 17th then at home a week later – will be the main factors in determining who is in the group of 31 for Japan.

“I think it’s a fresh slate for everyone,” he said last week at the Scotland training camp in St Andrews. “Obviously if boys have had a really good autumn or Six Nations that’s going to be at the back of Gregor and the coaches’ minds, as it always will be. If you’ve played well in those campaigns it will be, but when you come into these massive pre-seasons before a World Cup it is a clean slate.

“I think there are two separate cuts at separate times.  I think the first two games you want to play as well as you can. A lot of selection is going to come down to those first two games. 

“I mean, obviously all the training we’ve done, we’ve been in for six weeks and Gregor will have a slight idea in his head, but if you don’t pitch up for those games it’s going to be hard to select boys. So I think those games will have a big impact on selection.

“I think you’ve just got to turn up every day in these sessions. They’re pretty hard. You could have had the best Six Nations of your life and got player of the tournament, but if you haven’t pitched up these last six weeks in camp and had the wrong attitude you’re probably not going to get picked. You’ve got to try and play well in these summer friendlies and train well.”

Purely because of the numbers involved, the fiercest competition for places seems sure to be in the back row, where Watson is one of nine fighting it out for perhaps half a dozen places. With lock Sam Skinner also coming into the equation, and versatility being at a premium given the size of the squad, the battle will be all the harder to get on the plane to Japan.

“There are going to be some gutted boys when it gets cut down, because you can only take five or six,” Watson continued. “It’s pretty tough, but we’re all just training hard and see what happens really.

“It feels good to have a lot of competition in the back row. That’s been one of the strongest parts of our team for a while now. There’s nine of us plus Sam Skinner who can play back row too, so it’s great to have all that competition and us all pushing each other. 

“Because we’ve got so many back rows in  the squad at the moment, we’ve got nine, so at the moment he [Skinner] has not been swapping in as much as maybe in the Six Nations when we had a lot of injuries. But I think it’s good for the coaches to know that they’ve got Sam there and if there are a lot of injuries he can cover there. You saw that he does that very well. I think it’s just making sure he keeps on top of it and knows the back-row role, the plays and lineouts, if he gets called upon there.”

Whoever ends up making the cut and going to the World Cup is sure to feel the benefit of learning from Kelly Brown, according to Watson. The former Scotland captain has been working at the training camps as a breakdown coach, and, having only retired a couple of years ago, still has a player’s perspective on how to deal with the current laws.  

“It’s really good to have Kelly back in camp. He did a bit with us last season. He’s obviously a very experienced player and it’s good to get new people in and get their perspective on the breakdown. Doing a bit of extra training with him at the end of the day is going to benefit all us jackalers. He brings a different take on it. 

“Roddy [Grant] did a bit with us a couple of years ago. It’s good to get fresh faces sometimes when it’s specialised like that. Everyone comes with their own take and slightly different drills you may not have done before and every coach has a different spin on things. I think it’s good to have coaches who are pretty recent out of the game as well, because they know what it’s like and probably played with the new rules at the breakdown.”

Watson will celebrate his 28th birthday midway through the World Cup – two days after the last pool game against the host nation. He is approaching his peak as a player, and also believes that becoming a father has made him more mature as a person.

“It definitely gives a different outlook on life. Rugby, is important but you realise it’s not the be all and end all when you have a kid. Obviously it would mean the world to me to go to a World Cup having not been to one. But if you’re a single lad you could be going home to your flat, which could be pretty tough, whereas at least I have the family back home now, which puts a different perspective on it.”

About Stuart Bathgate 1427 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.