Hamish Watson has vowed to use this Saturday’s European Challenge Cup clash against London Irish as a launchpad to regain the Edinburgh No 7 jersey from John Hardie and, simultaneously, prove to national coach Vern Cotter that he should be a contender for Scotland’s Six Nations squad.
The 24-year-old had an impressive first year as a full-time professional with Edinburgh last season, recovering from a broken jaw which curtailed his dream of muscling into the national team for the 2014 Autumn Tests to eventually make his Scotland debut off the bench against Italy at Murrayfield during the Six Nations.
That game ended in bitter disappointment for Watson and Scotland when he was yellow-carded for frantically (and illegally) pulling down the Azzurri’s irresistible driving maul in the closing stages of a tense encounter. A penalty try was awarded against the combative flanker, meaning that the visitors were able to snatch an agonising 22-19 victory.
Watson was hardly the most culpable in that devastating setback for Scotland and bounced back to claim a spot in the 46-man extended training squad ahead of the World Cup. He came off the bench again to pick up his second cap (and some revenge) when the Scots vanquished Italy 16-12 in Turin in the second of their four World Cup warm-up matches, but, by that stage, the writing was already on the wall so far as his hopes of making the cut for the main event were concerned.
New Zealander John Hardie had been controversially parachuted into the Scotland set-up four weeks earlier and the kilted-Kiwi was a key figure in that scrappy but morale-boosting victory – doing enough to persuade Cotter that he could justify selecting him ahead of Watson, Blair Cowan and John Barclay in the 31-man squad which was named for the tournament.
In truth, Watson was always an outside bet for the World Cup, but the manner in which Hardie cruised past all the established contenders for the openside slot must have been a bitter pill to swallow. And perhaps insult was added to injury when it was announced after the World Cup that the 27-year-old import had signed a two-year deal with Edinburgh. Watson knows there is no capital to be gained from feeling hard done by. All he can do is embrace the challenge which Hardie’s arrival on the scene has presented, and hope that he ultimately emerges as a better player as a consequence.
“It is good to have competition in the squad and John is the starting seven for Scotland at the moment so that is a good thing for me. If I can push him and he can push me, that will get the best out of both of us,” said Watson.
“Time will tell, it is still early days, none of us fully have the starting spot yet.
“He [Hardie] has started the last four games so is maybe a bit more in the driving seat at the moment, but I have spoken to Alan [Solomons] about it and come those Glasgow games [the 1872 Cup double-header on the 27 December and 2 January] we will get a better idea from who starts those ones.”
“It was massively disappointing not to make the World Cup squad but there were lots of good players who got cut. Sometimes it takes those disappointments to push yourself a bit further. We’ll see how the Six Nations goes.”
In the meantime, Watson is looking forward to getting his first start for Edinburgh since the start of November when head coach Alan Solomons is expected to rest his World Cup veterans for the team’s trip to the Madejski Stadium this weekend.
Having won both of their games in this tournament so far, Edinburgh are well placed to emulate last season’s achievement in making it to the knock-out stages – and ultimately through to the final – of European rugby’s second tier competition, so there is plenty at stake
The fact that Cowan, another Scotland contender, is likely to be lining up in the opposition ranks serves to add an extra edge to the contest.
Watson added: “It is a good opportunity, especially before the Glasgow games. People see those as Scotland trial games. They’re not but they get extra attention. It’s a big game for me as Blair, John and I are all going for that spot.”
London Irish do not have their problems to seek at the moment. Without a league point after six rounds of matches in the Aviva Premiership, the Reading based outfit are already staring down the barrel of a relegation dogfight with less than a third of the season played.
After their most recent defeat last weekend [a 38-7 pummelling against Harlequins in which former Edinburgh hero Tim Visser grabbed a hat-trick of tries], head coach Tom Coventry hinted that morale was suffering as a result of their poor league form when he said: “There’s not a lot we can take out of that. We were totally outclassed and I don’t think we won any aspect of the game.”
In the circumstances, Coventry could be forgiven for fielding something approaching a second string line-up, but Watson reckons that the need to build some momentum is likely to be a more pressing concern when team selection is considered.
“Most French teams that are struggling in the league won’t play full sides in the Challenge Cup but I don ‘t think that will happen with London Irish. They have to watch out for that relegation battle but they can’t afford to put out a weakened side and lose these two games because they will want to build confidence. I’m pretty confident they’ll field a pretty strong team and look to have a real crack at the Challenge Cup,” he explains.
“After the run we had last year we have high hopes in this competition and we want to get to the final again. We are not prioritising one above the other in terms of the Pro 12 and the Challenge Cup, we’re trying to do the best we can in both competitions.”