HAMISH WATSON served notice on Saturday night that he is not ready to give up on being a key member of the Scotland team without a fight. The veteran openside flanker, who has found himself playing second-fiddle to Rory Darge in recent months, scored the first of his team’s 12 tries against overwhelmed Romania, and he was a valuable source of forward momentum with 16 carries – more than any other forward on the park – before being replaced with 15 minutes to go.
Afterwards, Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend acknowledged that the 31-year-old had made a case for inclusion in the match-day squad for next Saturday’s do-or-die clash against Ireland in Paris, when the front-liners who were rested against the (not-so) ‘Mighty Oaks’ will all come back into the mix.
For Watson, it was a relief just to get out there and remind people of what he can do after so long stuck on the periphery.
“It seems like it’s been forever since my last game – I’ve had to wait eight weeks, I think,” he said. “It’s not always easy when you make a lot of changes to the team, but the boys who came in did well. It puts us in a good position for next week.
“I managed to get myself into some good carrying slots early in the game. It was important just to try and get my hands on the ball early on.”
After missing out on selection to John Hardie for the 2015 tournament at the start of his international career, and then managing just 37 minutes of the first game of the 2019 campaign before suffering a knee injury, Watson has unfinished business at World Cups – and a place in the match-day squad for next weekend would go a long way to filling that gap in his CV.
“It’s just nice to actually play a full part in a game and come off unscathed compared to what happened four years ago,” he added. “It’s been a different role for me in the past few weeks, helping the boys prepare for games. I’m obviously not really used to that, and it has been tough, but I feel like I’ve now at least put myself forward into the conversation about selection. We’ll see what the coaches do. It’s obviously a massive game for us.
“I think it was 2017 the last time we beat Ireland so not many boys in this squad would have been around back then. Credit to them, they’re a good team and really tough to beat, and we’re playing them when they’re at their best as well – they’ve won 16 games in a row and they obviously looked great against South Africa.
“But that’s probably the way we prefer it as underdogs, being written off, and needing to win by eight points or more. This is going to be a really good week leading into a massive game for the whole country.”
Huw Jones, Finn Russell, Ali Price, Zander Fagerson and Richie Gray are the only other survivors in the current squad from that 2017 game. Since then, it has been a miserable run of eight defeats on the bounce, with the most painful of those losses undoubtedly being the opening game of the last World Cup, when Watson suffered that knee injury and the team endured a morale-crushing 27-3 reversal on their way to plummeting out of the tournament at the end of the pool phase.
It is a bitter memory, but not relevant to Scotland’s preparation for this week’s showdown, argued Watson.
“There’s a lot of continuity at the moment. We’ve been building really well. I think the squad as a whole is a lot tighter and in a lot better place.
“I know we say we’re a close-knit group quite a lot, but it is true. Everyone who gets selected doesn’t take it lightly. It feels like we’ve got some good momentum leading into what’s going to be a massive game for us against the best team in the world.”
Of course, it is not necessarily going to be a straight shoot-out between Watson and Darge for the No 7 jersey. Captain and blindside flanker Jamie Ritchie suffered a concussion against Tonga eight days ago and will only complete his return-to-play protocols this coming Friday if there are unanticipated hold-ups in his recovery.
The Scotland management team believe he is making good progress, but if Ritchie doesn’t make it then that could open the door for both Watson and Darge being involved in the match-day 23.