Just over three years ago Hamish Watson took part in the gruelling pre-World Cup training camp at Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees.
He may not have made Vern Cotter’s final cut for the England 2015 tournament but, unlike some of the lupine inhabitants in that neck of the woods, Watson’s career survived then thrived and he is now Scotland’s first-choice openside flanker less than a year out from the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend indicated this week that the starting gun in the race for World Cup selection was fired some time ago and, this time around, Watson finds himself in a protective rather than an aspirational attacking position in the jostle for seats on that plane next September.
Speaking just before flying to Cardiff for tomorrow’s opening November Test in the Doddie Weir Cup clash against Wales, the Edinburgh flanker acknowledged that the short hop to the Welsh capital was the start of a long haul.
“Obviously it’s the first international of the season, a few of us haven’t played since the Six Nations, having not gone on tour,” he said.
“So we’ve got to blow off the cobwebs and start the season well. This is a massive year for Scottish rugby, with 14 Test matches before the start of the actual World Cup. So it’s important that we start well and have a really good autumn series.
“I didn’t make it to the last World Cup; I did the preparations but didn’t get in. It’s still a way away, we’ve got to concentrate on the here and now.
“For us, that’s these four autumn games, then it’s the Six Nations – and after that our attention can turn to the World Cup.”
Tomorrow’s match is a bit of a stand-alone ahead of the home series against Fiji, South Africa and Argentina, with only home-based players involved but Watson welcomes the additional autumn hit-out.
“I think it’s good having four games,” said the Manchester-born 27-year-old. “We only had a week-long camp last week, so by the end of it we’ll really know our gameplan.
“We’ve not had much time together so getting four games back-to-back, being in camp for five weeks will help build momentum.”
Coming outside the Test release window, the match is effectively a Scotland Pro-Team XV against a Welsh Regions XV but Watson is viewing it as a full-blooded Test and knows all too well that players who are familiar rivals in the Guinness Pro14 become different animals when they pull on that iconic red jersey in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium.
“Obviously, you play Cardiff or Scarlets, you have five to ten internationals in the starting line-up,” noted Watson, who wins his 21st cap tomorrow.
“Here, you’ve got the full XV, the full 23 internationals, so the intensity is different, the tempo is a lot higher. They are a lot tougher than the club games – but they should be. They’re Test matches, a lot harder than club matches.”
On the opposite side of a back-row anchored by Glasgow skipper Ryan Wilson is Watson’s Edinburgh team-mate Jamie Ritchie, who will win his third cap in Cardiff.
Ritchie emerged as an openside with Scotland Under-20s but, with Watson taking a firm grip of the No 7 jersey, the 22-year-old Dundonian has been happy to take the blindside route to international recognition.
“It just means I’ve got a little bit more of a role at the lineout, but either is good for me,” he said. “I try to do pretty much the same thing wherever I am playing – the things I’m good at and whatever the team needs me to do. It just means I push on the other side of the scrum.”
Ritchie, who featured against Canada and Argentina in the summer, feels he is going into a first Test appearance on home union soil in good fettle. “It’s the first time I’ve been involved in every game in the lead-up to the autumn,” he explained. “Last year I played the first two [for Edinburgh] then had time off and was back in – so I’m really enjoying the amount of game time I’ve had. I came off the bench for Edinburgh a couple of times, but I’m really enjoying getting some minutes under my belt, and playing in that higher tier of European competition has been good for me.”
Ritchie has faced and beaten Wales at Under-20 level but tomorrow will be his first taste of the Principality Stadium.
“We’ll just have to shout a little bit louder to each other,” he said with a smile. “It is obviously a really loud place and we’ll be under a bit of pressure – but I’m really, really looking forward to it.”