Both Scots were outstanding during the Six Nations as Gregor Townsend’s side chalked up rare away wins over England and France. Yet the pair have found themselves the subject of knocking pieces in English newspapers.
Watson, who was voted player of the tournament, was dismissed as “too lightweight” to tour South Africa, a theory given short shrift by Warburton.
“No chance! Hamish Watson is never too small,” said the former flanker who captained the Lions on the 2013 and 2017 tours. “Josh Navidi had these critics for Wales. Justin Tipuric has probably had them over his career.
“I said this on Twitter recently, power trumps size every day of the week. I played against plenty of big guys who were slugs but it is that repeated power is what you need.
“I think personally that Warren Gatland would be purring watching Hamish Watson over the Six Nations. I thought he was outstanding.”
Gatland, the Lions coach, will name his 36-man squad on May 6 for the three-Test series. He will also his announce his captain that day and Warburton thinks the Lions head coach will plump for England’s Maro Itoje ahead of Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones and Ireland’s James Ryan by virtue of the fact that the latter pair are in direct competition for a second-row Test berth.
“The reason I say Maro as captain is because I think he is a dead cert [to start] and [it’s] between Alun Wyn and James Ryan to battle it out for that number five slot,” said Warburton.
“Warren knows the pressure on captain if they are not a guaranteed starter. I think there are six bankers to start a Test match, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Taulupe Faletau, Tom Curry, Anthony Watson and Stuart Hogg, who has leadership experience.
“I don’t think he will pick a back as captain so the other player who has leadership experience is Maro.”
Hogg has gone on two Lions tours but has not played in the Test team. The Scotland full-back was the youngster in the squad in Australia in 2013, and suffered a bad facial injury four years later in New Zealand which caused him to be sent home early.
Warburton, who was speaking as Canterbury launched the British & Irish Lions Test jersey, thinks the tourists will benefit from playing fewer games compared to four years ago. There are only five scheduled matches against local sides before the first Test in South Africa, compared to seven ahead of the All Blacks series in 2017.
“There were a couple of midweek games which we didn’t need,” said Warburton. “From a preparation point of view, I think four to five games is plenty. Absolutely plenty.
“As players, it’s not match fitness you’re chasing. Once you’ve had one or two runouts, you’re good to go. At the top level, these players can pick things up a lot quicker than the average person.
“I think an eight-game tour is the way it should be moving forward and I don’t know a player who wouldn’t agree with that based on the conversations I’ve had.”