Hamish Watson stamps mark on Scotland’s Six Nations bid

Hamish Watson has played himself into Lions contention. Photograph: Ross Parker/SNS
Hamish Watson has played himself into Lions contention. Photograph: Ross Parker/SNS
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As David Attenborough will attest, there are all sorts of odd animals populating the wider world but few of them are so determinedly one-eyed as the Welsh rugby reporter, a beast that views life through a red-tinted lens. So because it emanated from a Welsh pundit, the observation that Hamish Watson was fast playing himself into the Lions’ squad came with a little more authority than the usual idle post-match banter.

The Manchester-born flanker qualifies for Scotland through one set of Glasgow grandparents but he has supported the team from an early age, his dad driving him up to Murrayfield on a regular basis. He even boasts a pair of Dan Parks’ old international socks in a drawer at his parents’ home.

Like another “exile”, Huw Jones, Watson slept with a Saltire on his wall because, as he recounts: “I felt I had to prove to everyone that I was Scottish despite my English accent.”

He proved that much last weekend against Wales when the flanker came off the bench midway through the first half for John Hardie and still impressed sufficiently to make several of the ubiquitous amalgamated teams of the weekend. It was an altogether happier occasion than the last time he was whistled off the Scotland bench at Murrayfield.

Two years ago, Watson made his Test debut against Italy in the Six Nations.

He arrived on the field 51 minutes into the game, replacing Johnnie Beattie since you ask, and was carded at the death, conceding the final penalty try as Scotland imploded in that car crash finale. The match finished with Watson, a spectator on the sidelines, presumably thinking that he had just set a new standard for the shortest international career on record.

“No,” he denies the charge with a wry smile. “It was really tough to take and I had such emotions that day. I obviously loved it and you never forget your first cap and it was a proud moment for me and my family but then you’re yellow-carded and you lose at home to Italy for the first time in a while and that was pretty gutting.

“Bar the yellow card at the end, and you could have picked one of a few people at the bottom of that maul, I thought I did alright but losing to Italy at home shouldn’t really happen so it was pretty gutting.”

Watson started the first two matches and barring a coup d’etat he will start the next one too after Hardie was injured against Wales. In truth it would be almost impossible to bench Watson in London after his performances to date. He may never emulate Stuart Hogg’s silky handling but Watson is fast becoming the complete breakaway, ball carrier, link man, jackler and tackler despite some criticism from an unusual source.

Some weeks back, the Munster breakaway CJ Stander was picked up on the referee’s microphone during a Pro12 match against Edinburgh questioning Watson’s relish for the contact area but the statistics, and the evidence of our own eyes, suggest otherwise.

In the opening two fixtures the little Scot made 24 tackles without missing one and, with Scotland enjoying the bulk of possession while he was on the field, Watson still managed another six against Wales.

But it is his ball carrying numbers which surprise; for a little guy, Watson makes big inroads. He was the top ball carrier against Ireland and second best (to Josh Strauss) in Paris albeit by a margin. He is almost always the smallest forward on the field but the welterweight Watson is accustomed to going up against heavyweights every time he enters the Test arena.

“You come up against little obstacles but you just work on your strengths,” says the flanker, “and it’s harder for bigger guys to get down and compete with me jackling (stealing a turnover at a ruck).

“Having a low centre of gravity for carrying also works for me because it’s harder to stop me. So it might be nice being six foot and ten inches but you’ve just got to work with what you’ve got. You’ve just got to work with the tools you’ve got and be good at what you’re good at, if that makes sense.”

Watson is a product of the English midlands and originally signed for the Scottish sevens squad from the Leicester Tigers’ Academy. Richard Cockerill might want to review that decision once the former Tigers’ coach joins Edinburgh in the summer and gets a close look at the openside. But despite his English upbringing, the breakaway insists that this match is no different from any other – Watson has never even been to Twickenham.

“I take it like any other match,” he claims. “It will be a big game but big because we haven’t beaten them for ages, not because I used to live there when I was growing up.”

While Watson had to tame two natural openside flankers last weekend in Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, England will pose a more muscular challenge come Saturday, especially if Eddie Jones continues to play Maro Itoje in the No 6 shirt which has not been an unqualified success, the big man more accustomed to lock.

It would pit the biggest flanker in the tournament against the smallest but should Itoje be joined by Billy Vunipola, recovered from injury, in the back row then England’s best ball carrier needs to be felled at the ankles so a lack of inches would be a positive benefit to any would-be tackler.

“It will be slightly different,” Watson concedes. “They’ve got quite a big back row. When Barcs [John Barclay] plays at six we have a good person over the ball there as well. He was obviously a seven and can now play across the whole back row, so all our back rows are pretty good jacklers and can slow ball, so that’s something we will concentrate on.”

So what about the tantalising prospect of a Lions tour in the summer?

“It’s obviously great to hear but we’ve still got a long way to go to where we want to be in this championship. We’ve got two big games and have to concentrate on all that stuff first.”