On a day when Scotland were hit by yet another injury blow as Sean Maitland was ruled out of Saturday’s Six Nations clash with Wales, there was a ray of light as Hamish Watson faced the media seemingly fit and firing for a return at openside flanker.
The 27-year-old has matured into one of Scotland’s stand-out performers in the last couple of years and of all the many injuries that have hit Gregor Townsend’s squad since the turn of the year the broken hand he suffered on the eve of the championship in Edinburgh’s Heineken Champions Cup win over Montpellier in January was one of the most keenly felt. After an operation and six weeks out the flanker returned to play 50 minutes in Edinburgh’s loss to Benetton in Italy at the weekend and is now available for a swift return to the Scotland back row as they seek to get their campaign back on track after the successive losses to Ireland and France which have sapped pre-tournament optimism.
A naturally relaxed character, Watson admitted that it had been tough at times looking on as the opening win to Italy has given way to some below-par performances even when taking into account the lengthy casualty list.
“It’s tough whenever you watch Scotland games and you’re not playing whether that’s through non selection or through injury,” said the Manchester-born forward. “It was tough watching at home, but the boys played well in the first game. Obviously we lost the last two and it was tough to watch because you always want Scotland to do as well as possible. It’s better to be out there with the boys now training.”
Watson was at BT Murrayfield for the 22-13 loss to Ireland then at home as another, more dispiriting defeat followed in the French capital.
“I did a bit of commentary stuff for the Ireland game and it was too many errors, really, I think we conceded 22 turnovers. And I thought that game was there for the taking, we played very well in the first half. Just before the break we didn’t score that try [after lengthy pressure on the Ireland line] and that was a massive momentum swing, if we’d scored there we would have probably gone on to win that game because Ireland were a bit on the rack there.
“That was disappointing, and from there we just seemed to be chasing the game, made a few too many errors. You make 22 unforced errors in a game you’re going to struggle to win the test match.
“France was tough, it was a weird game and they scored a few tries at the end which I thought flattered the scoreline. I don’t think we deserved to win the game but again, a lot of errors, the set-piece went a bit away from us at the end there as well, the scrum. Both a bit disappointing but we can bounce back this week.”
Watson revealed that there was no kicking in the TV screen as the wheels came off in Paris.
“I’m pretty chilled,” he said with a chuckle. “When I’m playing the game I like to stay quite calm and collected but it’s obviously frustrating and it was more feeling bad for the boys.
“I know how much it’ll hurt, we came into the Six Nations with such high expectations and it was more texting the boys after the game, saying ‘keep your heads up there are two games to go’, it wasn’t getting angry at the TV or the boys doing stuff wrong.”
The fact that Watson’s injury was to his hand has meant that his general fitness has kept ticking over nicely and the legs and lungs will be fine for an immediate return to the ferocity of Test rugby in what is shaping up as a daunting challenge against a Welsh team riding the crest of a wave.
“I had two weeks in a cast, and then after that I could start running again,” explained Watson. “Fitness wise I didn’t miss much, it’s just a case of getting strength back as quickly as possible, you don’t want to get back playing rugby when you can’t grip for four weeks. So for a couple of weeks it was pretty light rehab stuff and then these last three weeks have been quite hard at it.”
Watson is braced for a monumental battle against a near peerless Welsh back row of Josh Navidi, opposite number Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty.
“They’ll be decent,” said Watson with a wry smile. “They’ve got a good back row, quite a good balance in it and Justin Tipuric’s a good player, so it’s a good challenge and I’ve played against him a few times now, so it’ll be good.”
Scotland have been hit hard with back row injuries going back to the loss of skipper John Barclay with a ruptured Achilles last May, but others have stepped up, including Watson’s young clubmate Jamie Ritchie. If, as expected, the 23-times capped flanker reclaims that No 7 jersey, Ritchie could switch over to blindside, with Sam Skinner and Magnus Bradbury the other options.
“I’m not surprised, I’m happy for him,” said Watson of Ritchie’s rich vein of form which has carried on from the summer tour through the autumn series.
“He’s been playing really well for Edinburgh and went really well in the autumn as well, so he’s got his opportunity at seven and played really well. It’s good, we’ve got a lot of depth in the back row and you can see that.
“We’ve got a lot of injuries in the back row and that’s one of the positions we’re still going well at. So, I’m really happy for him and it’s good to see the back row still going well.”