Hamish Watson excited for new South African challenge with Edinburgh after Lions tour frustration

Hamish Watson got to grips with South Africa’s finest players all too briefly on this summer’s Lions tour.

Edinburgh's Hamish Watson pictured during the United Rugby Championship's Scottish launch at the Kelpies (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)
Edinburgh's Hamish Watson pictured during the United Rugby Championship's Scottish launch at the Kelpies (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

Now he is looking forward to renewing the acquaintance on a more permanent basis in the United Rugby Championship.

The introduction of the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions to the new competition means an even tougher challenge than before for teams such as Watson’s Edinburgh, who begin their URC campaign on Saturday with a home game against Scarlets.

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But it is a challenge which excites the openside flanker, who believes that the return of spectators to grounds will be another energising factor for teams who have played out the majority of matches over the past 18 months in front of empty stands.

“To have four of the best South African teams in the URC will be great,” said Watson, who took a break after the Lions tour and has just begun his pre-season training, meaning he was not involved in his team’s friendly against Benetton yesterday. “And as long as Covid restrictions continue to be eased, we’ll have fans in the stadium, which will be awesome for players.

“Some of the young boys haven’t played in front of crowds, and I haven’t played in front of crowds for a year and a half. So this is a great time for the fans to come back and to watch South African teams - it’s really exciting.”

Although the third Test against the Springboks was briefly illuminated by some magic from Finn Russell and a few warm-up games had their moments too, “really exciting” is a phrase that few - participants or spectators - could honestly apply to the Lions tour. “Really frustrating” would be a more accurate summary for many, who believed Warren Gatland’s conservative game plan failed to make the most of the rich resources he had at his disposal.

For Watson, too, the tour was a source of frustration, especially the final fortnight in which he failed to get into the matchday 23 for the two Tests which the tourists lost. His 25-minute cameo in the victorious first Test was therefore his only contribution to the three-game series, and although he would not admit to any particular disgruntlement with the head coach, he clearly regards it as a missed opportunity.

“I’m not going to lie,” the Scotland international continued. “I’m not going to sit here and be like ‘I wasn’t gutted at all’. I think everyone has a desire to be starting and playing every week, and I’m not just going to settle for getting one Test appearance.

“I’d be lying if I said I came back really happy. I was frustrated in the last two weeks. But I can also think, without talking myself up, that I had a good year leading up to it - a good few years leading up to it. I think I did everything I could have done to try and gain a starting spot.

“Sometimes coaches just go for different players and that’s just the way it is - a coach likes someone more than another person, or likes what they bring more than another person. I feel like I did everything I could have done to put my best foot forward and try and get in the squad for the second and third weeks and that wasn’t the case.

“I was gutted about it, but also I don’t have any regrets thinking ‘If only I’d done this’ or ‘If only I’d done that’. Just sometimes coaches go with different players and that’s the way it is.”

Despite that disappointment, Watson, who turns 30 next month, is certain there were a lot of positives to be taken from his Lions experience. Not only does he believe he has improved individually, he is also convinced he can now contribute more to the Edinburgh squad too.

“I hope I’m a better player from the experience of a Lions tour, and there’s a lot of attitude stuff I can bring to training that I learned from the Lions,” he concluded. “I’m not going to be holding sessions to do what the Lions did - I think it’s more like little tweaks and things to work on.

“I was able to watch players from other nations and see how they operate - that will be good to bring back into camp, definitely for some of the younger players. Hopefully I can help them develop.”

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