Hamish Watson is one wrong side of rugby’s law change

Up for the challenge. Hamish Watson is not put off by law changes that make his job more difficult.
 Photograph: Bill Murray/SNS
Up for the challenge. Hamish Watson is not put off by law changes that make his job more difficult. Photograph: Bill Murray/SNS
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As jokes go it wasn’t going to win any awards but since it came from the mouth of “Stern Vern” Cotter we laughed manically, like it was the end of the world.

We were discussing Scotland rugby’s inability to develop its own players and the Kiwi responded with the name “Hamish Watson” as evidence for the defence.

“He came from Leicester Tigers’ academy,” some brave soul pointed out.

“Well,” Cotter replied, “he sounds Scottish.”

The Kiwi coach gave Watson his first cap off the bench, a forgettable loss to Italy at Murrayfield in 2015 when Watson’s main contribution was a yellow card that helped the Italians to only their second win away from home in the Six Nations.

For that reason, and a few others, the flanker didn’t become a regular in the Scotland starting line-up until this time last season. Since then he has started all bar two of Scotland’s Tests, his erstwhile rival John Hardie starting against Wales in the Six Nations and against Fiji in the summer, another dispiriting defeat.

Watson has returned from injury just in time, with one full game for Edinburgh under his belt. He managed 20 tackles against Benetton, not bad for a player CJ Stander reckoned was a little shy in defence, and the pocket dynamo looks set to start against Samoa next weekend.

“It was great to get back into it,” said Watson. “I was blowing in the first 25 minutes having not played for a couple of weeks, so it was good to play the full 80. There were a few tackles and the body is still a bit sore.

“Treviso away nowadays is no gimmie. It’s a real tough game and the boys did very well. We were a bit unlucky not to get the bonus point in the end.”

Watson is listed at six foot-plus but in reality he is a little man in a sport full of bullies. If the flanker boasts the belligerence of the small dog in the fight he probably also carries an underdog’s insecurity and he might be wise to do so. If Hardie is no longer challenging for the No.7 shirt, another product of Welford Road has just thrown in his lot with Scotland and, at 6ft 3in and 17-odd stones, Luke Hamilton is a big bruiser.

Professional rugby is evolving on an annual basis and the current path the game is taking threatens to do small specialist sevens like Watson out of a job. Thanks to a law change, tacklers can no longer turn “jackal-ers” without getting to their feet and re-entering the breakdown via “the gate”. It effectively neuters a host of turnover specialists.

To add to the defender’s woes, referees are allowing all advantages to go to the side with the ball in the interests of continuity, which has been taken to ridiculous lengths .

Attackers regularly readjust on the floor once, twice, sometimes three times to prevent defenders from getting hands to the ball. All Blacks captain Kieran Reid complained bitterly about the Lions doing it in the summer; “How many times can they adjust?” he asked.

It is entirely illegal, not that you’d guess as much watching referees turn a collective blind eye in the cause of continuity.

Just as importantly, whistle blowers also allow attacking teams to effectively seal off the ball, sometimes getting just inches from the ground and supporting themselves on their hands like they were about to do a few press-ups; again illegal, again ignored. With the above in mind it is little surprise that defending teams have largely quit competing at the breakdown and prefer instead to man the defensive barricades where a bruiser like Hamilton is more likely to make a dominant tackle and a turnover, which is one reason Agen regularly fielded him at seven. Does rugby’s current flight path threaten to make Watson redundant?

“I don’t think so,” he argues. “I think it makes it even more valuable when you do get those turnovers. Obviously it’s a bit harder now since they made a few law changes, to get those jackals, but that’s why it’s important not to just have jackal-ing as your main attribute. It is what a traditional seven does, they get turnovers, but it’s important to adapt your game and keep offering other things. But you can still get turnovers and it [the law change] just makes it even more important.

“I haven’t changed [my own game] massively since the law change. They’re trying to help the attacking team more and more and keep that attack going, so I think it’s becoming harder but it’s been coming over the last couple of years, so in that time I’ve been trying to adapt my game and not just offer turnovers.

“I watch a bit of the Premiership so I knew a few of the boys who were coming in. You obviously don’t know what the squad is going to be so you’re looking at the other back rowers obviously, but it’s good that they’re bringing more depth and getting a bigger pool, I suppose.

“You keep having to push yourself anyway but it just shows that your spot is never safe.”

If traditional sevens are going the way of the Dodo then no-one has informed Gregor Townsend since he looks likely to select two in Scotland’s back row against Samoa – Watson and John Barclay, pictured right – even if the captain is more of a 6½ these days. Rather than fight fire with fire, the national coach has instead opted to go the opposite route. He wants to run and pass Samoa off the field, providing Scotland’s skills are up to the task and even then, only if the forwards get on the front foot.

The Scotland squad need a convincing win against the islanders if only to park the loss to Fiji last time out. There is a suspicion that Scotland can be bullied – remember Twickenham – and the forwards will need to stamp on that quickly because they have a tough fixture list and any hint that the Scote have a soft centre will result in everyone lining up to kick sand in their faces.

“It’s definitely something we want to put right,” says Watson of that loss in Suva. “It was for us, as it was for you, a disappointing result for Scotland after such a great win over Australia. Fiji in Fiji is always going to be a tough game but we addressed it in the camp we had back in August and now I don’t think it will be mentioned again. We just have to put it right and get back to winning ways.

“We’re playing eight of the top nations in our next nine games and they will be tough but we go into those games now knowing that if we play to the level we know we can play to we can beat all of those teams.

“That is definitely something we’ve talked about, winning a lot of those games and that’s the belief that now exists in this playing squad. It might not have been quite like that four or five years ago but Vern helped with that and now Gregor, so you’re going into these games knowing that you can win them. Obviously, they’re going to be very tough games but that’s what makes you a better team.”

Possible Scotland XV:Hogg; Seymour, H Jones, Dunbar, McGuigan; Russell, Price; Marfo, McInally, Nel, Toolis, Gray, Barclay, Watson, Wilson.