The flanker, who last week signed a new three-year contract, is in the sort of form that makes the big guns of France and England sit up and take notice. And, at 29, he was in a position to maximise value from what could potentially be the biggest contract of his career.
That he decided to remain in Scotland is testament to his loyalty and Richard Cockerill’s determination to keep him.
In the aftermath of Duhan van der Merwe’s decision to leave, the Edinburgh coach described Watson’s re-signing as “a statement” and hopes it will convince others to stay and new players to join.
Watson said Cockerill was a big part of his decision and he hopes it will be vindicated by silverware.
“We are starting to get to the business end of competitions regularly which is certainly something we didn’t do towards the start of my time at Edinburgh,” said Watson who joined the club in 2011.
“We are getting to quarter-finals, we are getting to semi-finals and that’s what it’s all about and what the fans want to see. The more we can do that, like we have done under Cockers for the last three seasons, that is what builds confidence. Sometimes you need these experiences to then come to these games and, having been here before, hopefully be on the right side of some of those results.”
While Edinburgh’s progress under Cockerill is undeniable, they have struggled in knockout games and Watson is determined to take the next step.
“I don’t know how many play-offs we’ve got to now and we’re all desperate to get to a final. He is an ambitious person, used to winning and he wants to get that right with Edinburgh.
“Winning some silverware, that’s my ambition as an Edinburgh player. Every rugby player wants to win something in their career and I want to do it with, not my hometown club, but pretty close to it. I’ve been here since I was a teenager.
“We always say it, but I believe in this group of players, I believe we can do something, and I still feel like we’ve got some unfinished business here. The thing that tipped is people know me, I am quite a loyal guy, and in the end, it’s a family decision as well.
“My wife loves it here, my kids are too young to know if we moved anyway, the little one is two now, and they were born here, and it will be really nice raising them here as well.”
Schooled at the Leicester Tigers academy, the 19-year-old Watson initially came north on a Scotland Sevens contract in the summer of 2011, signed by Stevie Gemmell. After a string of impressive showings in the back-row he was approached to join the Edinburgh’s elite development programme.
His progress into the first team was followed by an international breakthrough and he is now a cornerstone of Gregor Townsend’s Scotland side.
His value to the national team was starkly underlined in a Tweet from rugby statisticians OptaJonny last week which revealed that Watson won 13 turnovers for Scotland in 2020, more than any other player in Test rugby. He also made 117 out of 117 tackles when no one else attempted more than 40 without missing at least one.
It’s hardly surprising that he was on the radar of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Racing 92 were one such side credited with an interest but Watson plays it down.
“I don’t know where that came from but put it this way, that wasn’t one of the clubs that got to later stages of negotiations. There were a few murmurs early on going way back but that wasn’t one of the main clubs.
“There were a number of clubs interested, it’d be pretty unprofessional to say exactly which clubs were and weren’t interested, but there were clubs out there interested. We got to quite far down the line with discussions and talking to the people you need to talk to when you’re going to do stuff like that.
“In the end I’m just happy that we got it done with Edinburgh, I can’t really expand much further than that. Edinburgh offered me a contract when they heard there was interest out there and we got it done which I’m really excited about.”
The new contract means he will be an Edinburgh player when the next Rugby World Cup comes around and the 2023 tournament in France represents a huge incentive for Watson whose experiences of the global jamboree have been all too fleeting. He narrowly missed out on selection in 2015 and then was injured in Scotland’s opening game against Ireland in 2019, ruling him out of the remainder of the competition.
He admits that being under the auspices of the Scottish Rugby Union offers him a degree of protection in terms of the national side.
“If you go to France you might have to give up international stuff and that’s a massive factor,” he said. “To be at Edinburgh, it gives me a great chance to hopefully make the next Rugby World Cup.
“The last World Cup was pretty devastating for me and I was involved in the 2015 pre-tournament stuff, the Tests before we went away, and didn’t make the squad. I’ve been there or thereabouts the last two and only got one appearance. If I would have gone away, you might not have made the World Cup squad in France. These are all small factors, you have to sum it all up and go through all the pros and cons, I guess.”