HAVING just failed to make the World Cup squad as a rookie international back in 2015 and being injured in Scotland’s first match at the tournament four years ago, Hamish Watson is understandably very eager to be included in Gregor Townsend’s final group of 33 for this year’s event – and to play a major role in the team’s campaign. It would be a major surprise if the Edinburgh openside were not included, but the 31-year-old himself is taking nothing for granted, believing that the competition for back-row places is as intense as he is known it.
Watson made his Test debut against Italy in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup in England, and although at the time he may have been a long shot to get into then head coach Vern Cotter’s final squad, that in no way diminished his disappointment at not being selected. Four years later he was close to being an automatic selection by Gregor Townsend for the tournament in Japan, but then suffered a knee injury in the first half of Scotland’s first pool game against Ireland and had to go home.
“2015 was pretty disappointing,” Watson said earlier this week. “I remember getting cut and it was pretty gutting, even as a young lad.
“You hope you’ll have another chance, which I did in 2019. I felt really good going into the last World Cup, playing really well in those summer Tests. But then I got injured in the first game.
“I’ve only played one game in a World Cup, so I’m obviously massively motivated to try and get to another and hopefully play a few games at it. But then so is everyone else. Some people are going to their first World Cup, some people their third, so I think everyone is just as motivated, and it’s pretty tight for spots as well.”
There are six back-row players besides Watson in the squad of 41 that Townsend has to cut down to 33 in the coming weeks: his Edinburgh team-mates Jamie Ritchie and Luke Crosbie, Glasgow trio Rory Darge, Matt Fagerson and Jack Dempsey, and Josh Bayliss of Bath. Unsurprisingly given the quality of those individuals, Watson is convinced that this is the strongest back-row group there has been in his time with Scotland.
“I think so,” he continued. “It’s always tough, because I think in Scotland we’re quite lucky – we always seem to have a really strong group of back-rowers.
“This time round it definitely feels like there’s a lot of depth in those positions. There is an amazing group of players in that back row and it’s probably one of the most hotly contested positions.
“No idea,” he continued when asked how many back-row players he expects Townsend to include in his final squad. “It’s a bit of a guessing game. There are seven in the squad at the moment and there are 33 players going, so I imagine it’ll be five or six. It might depend on whether they take a second row who can play that position. Who knows? I haven’t been given an indication.”
Watson sat out last weekend’s 25-13 win win over Italy, but is expected to be in the team to play France at Murrayfield this Saturday in the second of Scotland’s four warm-up games. Townsend, who will announce his side this morning [Wednesday], has said he plans to put out “as strong a team as possible” between this home game and the return in St Etienne seven days later. That will mean the likes of Pierre Schoeman, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell and Zander Fagerson returning to action alongside Watson as the Scots seek to sharpen their attack.
The last of the warm-ups, at home to Georgia on Saturday 26, will be a demanding challenge, especially up front. But the double-header against the World Cup hosts will constitute the severest test of Scotland’s cutting edge before attention turns to the tournament itself, in which they face South Africa, Ireland, Tonga and Romania in their pool.
“There’s never really a friendly or warm-up game in rugby,” Watson insisted. “France are one of the best teams in the world, we’re ranked No 5, so it’s going to be a really tough game. I don’t think there’s any sort of warm-up element to it – it’s going to be a pretty tough physical game. The players prepare as if it’s a Six Nations game: it’s a massive game for us.
“I think it’s all about trying to play as best as you can in these first few games so you can build momentum going into the World Cup. In the World Cup we know it’s a tough pool, but on our day we believe we can beat anyone. We know it’s going to be hard, but you’ve got to beat them all, I guess, if you want to get far.”