SCOTLAND openside Hamish Watson will have had British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland “purring” with his performances during the recent Six Nations and he is a certainty to tour South Africa this summer, according to Sam Warburton.
In recent weeks, there have been doubts expressed by some in the media that 29-year-old Watson is too small to take on the powerful South Africans in their own backyard.
However, having earned 74 caps for Wales and captained the Lions on the last two tours in 2013 and 2017, Warburton knows a thing or two about back-row play.
And the 32-year-old believes that Six Nations player of the tournament Watson will be a key man for Gatland and co against the reigning world champions.
“No chance, Hamish Watson is never too small,” Warburton replied when asked about Watson’s perceived lack of size compared to other modern day back-row players.
“Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric for Wales have had their critics over their careers around that too, but I said this on Twitter recently, power trumps size every day of the week.
“I’ve played against plenty of big guys who were slugs, but it is that repeated power that you need and personally I think Warren Gatland would have been purring watching Hamish Watson over the Six Nations, I thought he was outstanding.
“I can’t wait to see how he goes in the warm-up games [for the Lions].”
The Lions squad is named on 6th May with the first Test against South Africa due to be in Johannesburg on 24th July.
Warburton admits that the touring squad and first Test starting XV in his head have changed a number of times of late.
However, he does believe Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg is one of six ‘definites’ who will start in the Tests if fit.
“I think there are six bankers to start a Test match: [Irish tighthead prop] Tadgh Furlong, [English second-row] Maro Itoje, [Wales No.8] Taulupe Faletau, [England back-row] Tom Curry, [England winger] Anthony Watson and Stuart Hogg,” he explains.
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“As to who will be the captain, I go back and forth, but I go back to who I thought a while back and that is Maro Itoje.
“People will look at the first Six Nations game when he gave away four or five penalties [for England in the loss to Scotland], but that will have been a bit of rustiness and Gats will want him primed and ready to go because he is a guaranteed Test starter.
“I was extremely, extremely impressed when I toured with him in 2017 as well and given his age  I think he is at the right stage to captain because leading might be too much pressure on older guys who are just focused on getting through a tour.
“The reason I say Maro as captain is because I think he is a dead cert [to start the Tests] and then it is between Alun Wyn Jones and James Ryan to battle it out for that number five shirt.”
There are suggestions in some quarters that the Lions will be undercooked as a unit ahead of the first Test with only the BT Murrayfield clash with Japan on 26th June and five tour matches to come before playing the Springboks. However, Warburton is happy that they will be ready for whatever is thrown at them.
“[On the last two tours] there were a couple of midweek games which we didn’t need,” he states. “From a preparation point of view, I think four to five games is plenty, absolutely plenty. As players it’s not match fitness you’re chasing, once you’ve had one or two run-outs, you’re good to go. At the top level, these players can pick things up a lot quicker than the average person.
“I think an eight game tour is the way it should be moving forward and I don’t know a player who wouldn’t agree with that based on the conversations I’ve had.
“As for South Africa, well it will be difficult. I think they have four games before the series, but they haven’t played together since 2019.
“You’d have liked them to have more game time but when you have players that good, you don’t need that long to get going, you don’t forget how to run lines, how to run plays, it’s just getting the calls ingrained in your head.
“I reckon come the series it will be a pretty level playing field. I don’t think either team will use lack of playing time as an excuse.”
Insurance company Royal London have agreed to fund a feasibility study into the idea of a women’s British & Irish Lions tour, and Warburton would love it to become a reality.
“It would be amazing,” he said. “Obviously, right now, it would probably be dominated by English players, but then the incentive to play rugby would grow massively, the funding would grow massively in the other nations as well – a women’s Lions tour would be awesome.”
- Sam Warburton was speaking as Canterbury launched the British & Irish Lions Test jersey. Get yours from www.canterbury.com.