THERE was a period of about six years when Hamish Watson – when fit – was one of the first names on every Scotland team-sheet. His relentlessness was demonstrated by the remarkable stat which revealed that in 25 Test matches between February 2019 and July 2022, he didn’t miss a single tackle (with 332 tackles completed). However, the 31-year-old wasn’t taking anything for granted at the start last week as he awaited the call from Gregor Townsend which would bring news of the veteran flanker’s selection – or omission – from this Autumn’s World Cup squad.
The combination of a 2022-23 season disrupted by a concussion which kept him out of action from mid-November until just before the start of the Six Nations, some bad luck when he did eventually appear in the Six Nations, and the emergence over the last two years of Rory Darge and Luke Crosbie as serious contenders for the Scotland No 7 jersey, all conspired to ensure that Watson felt his involvement in the tournament was far from guaranteed.
“The back-row is always hotly contested and that’s especially the case at the moment so I don’t think anything is ever certain,” the veteran flanker reasoned. “So, I was pretty nervous while I was waiting for the phone call, to be honest. Then, with Gregor on the phone, it is quite hard to read his tone of voice at times, so it was all pretty tense – and to eventually find out that I had made it was a great moment for me.”
With that hurdle safely negotiated, Watson has now set his sights on making the match-day 23 for Scotland’s key matches against South Africa in Marseilles on 10th September and Ireland in Paris on 7th October.
“I was actually available or the first two Six Nations games but I had only played one game for Edinburgh and Luke Corsbie was playing really well so he got the nod against England and Wales, then I came back for the France game but Gilco [Grant Gilchrist] got red-carded early on and I had to make way after 10 minutes, then I was on the bench against Ireland and only got 15 minutes, and against Italy I only got 50 minutes, so it was a bit of a stop-start campaign for me,” he explained.
“I found it quite hard compared to what I was used to – getting 80 minutes – but I thought I finished the season with Edinburgh quite well and felt I was getting back to my best.
“Now we are where we are, and I’m hoping to get some game-time against Georgia, but we’ll see what happens.
“At this point, it is a case of trying to grab your opportunity when it comes along because the squad is in a really good place with a lot of spots which are hotly contested.
“It is just different,” responds Watson, when asked about how he coped with Darge being selected ahead of him against Italy at home and France away during the last month. “You have to try to react as well as possible which is tough because we are all competitive people who want to be starting every week, and that’s going to be the same during the World Cup when there will be 10 guys disappointed when the team is announced for each match.
“It’s the nature of the beast – you are not going to get it you own way all the time when you are competing at this level. You are always surrounded by great players who are all desperate to play and there will be moments when they get ahead of you, so all you can do is react positively to whatever is thrown at you.”
“It is very exciting to go to my second World Cup,” added Watson, who missed out on the 2015 tournament to Kilted-Kiwi John Hardie – who had only been in the country a few months – and then lasted only 37 minutes at the 2019 tournament in Japan.
“Obviously, four years ago I picked up that knee injury and only played one game so it was a really disappointing tournament for me personally and the team as a whole because we didn’t make it out the pool stage. We’re all looking for a much better experience this time around.
“Personally, I know I am in a battle to make the team because Dargey has done really well since coming in – he’s a great player and I think it’s good for both of us to have that competition driving each other on – and Luke Crosbie showed during the Six Nations that he can do a really good job at openside as well.”
Scotland entered the 2019 World Cup with high hopes of reaching the latter stages of the tournament but ended up being blown away by Ireland on that opening weekend and never recovered, with another heavy defeat to Japan in their final pool match meaning they exited the tournament with the tail between their legs.
There were calls for Townsend to lose his job at that point but Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson stood by the head coach, and Watson believes that continuity can be key to this year’s World Cup being a much happier experience for the boys in blue.
“Four years ago, we were in a bit of a transitional period as a squad, and it was Gregor first’s World Cup, so I think he learned a lot from it as well as the players,” he explained.
“I think the team probably wasn’t as well connected back then and we maybe had a few more mini-groups within the group, so I think we are now in a much better place whether that is rugby ability wise or off the field.
“I can’t comment on how everybody else feels, but I can say that the way I feel in sessions and in games is that we are tight-knit squad and on the field and we know exactly what we want to do now, whereas in 2019 we maybe weren’t as sure of the way we wanted to play, or we knew how we wanted to play but didn’t prepare well enough for it.
“Basically, we’re four years on and been together as a group for a long time now, and I think we’ve learned and grown together.”