A week is a long time in politics, goes the old saying, although in this current climate a week seems a lifetime these days. Modern professional sport can certainly give Boris and Co a run for their money when it comes to fast-paced advances, and the four-year World Cup cycle is an eternity by comparison.
Back in 2015, Edinburgh openside Hamish Watson was one of the young guns left out by then national coach Vern Cotter ahead of the tournament in England. Four years on and the 27-year-old is viewed as one of Scotland’s key players heading towards the World Cup in Japan, which starts for Gregor Townsend’s men with a potentially defining pool-opener against Ireland in Yokohama on 22 September. In most eyes, Watson would be one of the inked-in certainties to be on the plane as part of the final 31-man group, but he refuses to make any assumptions.
“Who knows? Maybe but maybe not. I think you’ve just got to turn up every day in these sessions,” he said in St Andrews last week where the extended 44-man squad have been continuing their build-up.
“They’re pretty hard. You could have had the best Six Nations of your life and got player of the tournament but if you haven’t pitched up these last six weeks in camp and had the wrong attitude you’re probably not going to get picked. You’ve got to try and play well in these summer friendlies and train well.
“I think it’s a fresh slate for everyone. Obviously if boys have had a really good autumn or Six Nations that’s going to be at the back of Gregor and the coaches’ minds as it always will be. If you’ve played well in those campaigns it will be, but when you come into these massive pre-seasons before a World Cup it is a clean slate.”
Four years ago Watson only had two caps to his name, both against Italy, before the chosen few embarked on an adventure south of the Border which ended in a dramatic 35-34 quarter-final loss to Australia at Twickenham.
His first cap was one to forget, coming off the bench in the painful home defeat to Italy in what was to unfold into an ignominious whitewash in Cotter’s first season. Watson and his clubmate Ben Toolis were both sin-binned in the dying minutes as things fell apart against the Azzurri.
He picked up a second Scotland cap in the warm-up Test in Turin later that year but, after a stellar couple of years, Watson is now one of the nation’s key players. Arguably the forward pack’s answer to a Finn Russell or Stuart Hogg thanks to his eye-catching and trademark pinball wizard dynamism in the loose.
A hand injury curtailed his Six Nations this year but he roared back for a strong end to the season that augurs well heading for Japan.
Becoming a new father to a baby daughter has added to the sense of progression from the build-up to the last World Cup, when Manchester-born Watson was still just finding his feet in the homeland of his dad Les.
“Yes, it definitely gives a different outlook on life,” said the proud father, whose partner gave birth to a first child last September. “Rugby is important, but you realise it’s not the be all and end all when you have a kid. Obviously it would mean the world to me to go to a World Cup having not been to one.
“But if you’re a single lad you could be going home to your flat, which could be pretty tough, whereas at least I have the family back home now, which puts a different perspective on it.”
Watson may be riding the crest of a wave currently, but he knows full well how quickly things can change, and the competition that exists in arguably Scotland’s strongest department.
“It feels good to have a lot of competition in the back row,” he said. “That’s been one of the strongest parts of our team for a while now. There’s nine of us plus Sam Skinner who can play back row too, so it’s great to have all that competition and us all pushing each other. There are going to be some gutted boys come to when it gets cut down, because you can only take five or six. It’s pretty tough, but we’re all just training hard and see what happens, really.”
When all are fit, that back-row selection battle was already looking stacked before the emergence of Exeter Chiefs’ Skinner, who can play lock and blindside and has hugely impressed the national coaching team and his squad mates.
“Because we’ve got so many back rows in the squad at the moment, we’ve got nine, so at the moment he’s not been swapping in as much as maybe in the Six Nations when we had a lot of injuries,” explained Watson.
“But I think it’s good for the coaches to know that they’ve got Sam there for if, like what happened in the Six Nations and there are a lot of injuries, he can cover there.
“You saw that he does that very well. I think it’s just making sure he keeps on top of it and knows the back-row role, the plays and lineouts if he gets called upon there.”
During last week’s training in St Andrews the loose forwards were doing a lot of training drills with the backs as Townsend looks to build that multi-faceted game plan for Japan.
“It’s massive, especially with the way we play and the way Gregor likes us to play,” said the flanker. “The back row are all used as link players and we are in the wide channels a fair bit, so it’s good to have good chemistry with the backs. It’s a huge part of our game to link up with them.”
An overseeing eye has been provided by Kelly Brown, the former Scotland skipper and back-rower who has been doing work with the squad on the breakdown.
“It’s really good to have Kelly back in camp. He did a bit with us last season,” said Watson of the former Borders, Glasgow and Saracens forward, who is now an academy coach at the European champions.
“ He’s obviously a very experienced player and it’s good to get new people in and get their perspective on the breakdown. Doing a bit of extra training with him at the end of the day is going to benefit all us jackalers.
“He brings a different take on it. Roddy [Grant] did a bit with us a couple of years ago. It’s good to get fresh faces sometimes when it’s specialised like that. Everyone comes with their own take and slightly different drills you may not have done before, and every coach has a different spin on things.
“I think it’s good to have coaches who are pretty recent out of the game as well, because they know what it’s like and probably played with the new rules at the breakdown.”