Bath flyer Anthony Watson makes his maiden Test start on Saturday against the Springboks. Though the mercurial wing is still 20, it feels as though this has been a long time coming. We chart his rise through the ranks
STANDING IN front of the assembled press at Pennyhill Park last Thursday after being named in England’s match-day 23 to face New Zealand, Anthony Watson was asked what part of his potential Test debut he was most excited about. As it turned out, he had known the answer for quite a while.
“Probably the anthems,” said the Bath wing, who starts this weekend’s clash with South Africa in place of injured clubmate Semesa Rokoduguni. “I’ve been looking forward to this day since I was five or six years old to be honest.”
To someone unfamiliar with Watson’s charmingly innocent, grin-a-minute demeanour, these comments may seem laced with a hint of self-entitlement – as though a precocious youngster has counted his chickens long before they hatched.
However, much like his brother Marcus, a blockbuster lynchpin of Simon Amor’s England Sevens set-up, Anthony is humble and grounded. Besides, a path to a full cap in Saturday’s 24-21 loss to the All Blacks – only nine months out of his teens – has been totally inevitable.
I first saw him feature in an U18 Daily Mail Vase final at Twickenham back in April 2011, where he was playing for St George’s College, Weybridge against Solihull School. Having built up a sparkling reputation as an age-group star in the London Irish Academy and for representative sides, Watson was marshalled closely. At one point, his frustration boiled over into a flash point and a bout of handbags.
Solihull eventually won out 28-21, but not before Watson – sporting a hair-do dangerously close to a mullet – had torn past a handful of would-be tacklers late on to reduce the deficit:
Defeat that day probably stung a great deal. However, it provided an ideal platform to reinforce Watson’s burgeoning ability as an arch-finisher. Later that month, national service called. He answered emphatically.
Trailing 34-17 to their Welsh counterparts with 10 minutes remaining, England U18 pulled off a spectacular heist. Jack Nowell scorched home to complete a brace, before Sale centre Mark Jennings gave his team a sniff at glory. Then this happened on the final play:
Hugging the right touchline, Watson shows composure to retain width and take the offload. Two explosive steps off his right foot give the covering defence little hope. But the try is as much a result of sheer instinct as it is bristling athleticism. We know that simply because Watson has kept scoring at every level.
Stuart Lancaster’s tenure has been characterised by the swift promotion of youth. Owen Farrell and Joe Launchbury are two high-profile beneficiaries. Racking up four five-pointers in 21 appearances for Bath over the 2013-14 Premiership campaign, Watson earned a place on June’s senior tour to New Zealand. He repaid the faith by doing exactly what he does best in the midweek victory over the Crusaders:
More searing pace and elusive evasion is obvious here. Taking a look at another view though, we see Watson’s work-rate and intelligent support play. He holds his depth while Stephen Myler and Chris Pennell join forces to create enough of a gap:
As Julian Savea has demonstrated over a special start to his international career, if you hunt space, trust the playmakers and time your running lines nicely, tries will come.
Watch how Watson combined with George Ford in the opening minutes of Bath’s current domestic season:
Rising to take this cross-kick ahead of Italy’s Luke McLean, Watson shows off his aerial prowess – something that will no doubt be put to the test by Springbok fly-half Patrick Lambie this weekend. Put simply, he offers many different types of threat.
Something from nothing
England’s maiden Junior World Championship win in the summer hoisted the stock of many of its protagonists. Captain Jack Clifford, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and Nowell garnered the most praise. Even so, few interventions were as important as Watson’s intercept-score in the semi-final against New Zealand:
Lurking in the tramlines, Watson closes off the angle and picks off Jason Emery’s pass. It is far from a fluke – more an astute defensive read.
Take a look at this from England Saxons’ tussle with the Irish Wolfhounds from January:
Here, Watson does not panic and rush up, though it may be tempting to blitz given that Wolfhounds left wing Craig Gilroy has joined the line. Instead, he treads water, co-operates with outside-centre Matt Hopper and drifts towards the final attacker.Then, as the pass is spilt by Gilroy, he is in a perfect position to tear through onto the loose ball.
Lancaster’s calls these kind of plays “something from nothing” moments. He values the innate ability to produce them. Calm footballing nous is another weapon in Watson’s armoury.
Composure in open space
Bath’s battering of Bordeaux-Begles last season catapulted Rokoduguni into the spotlight. The Fijian tank soldier’s brace really caught the imagination, even if the French visitors looked disinterested at times. Whatever the opposition’s attitude, Watson’s early assist for Tom Biggs oozed class:
While the speed is again impressive, his transfer of the ball into two hands before a dummy right and a short pass left is exceptional.
Another view accentuates eye-catching decision-making and creativity:
England must capitalise on line breaks against Heyneke Meyer’s men. This sort of clinical edge could prove vital.
Of course, England fans are dreaming if they think the whole of Saturday will be spent on the front foot. Smarting from a comprehensive loss to Ireland, the Boks are sure to charge out of the blocks. Do not make the mistake of thinking Watson will shirk defensive duty.
Picture the scene: a year ago at a sodden Sixways and Worcester are already fighting for every point in anticipation of a relegation battle. The conditions do not suit Bath’s fast-paced approach, so old-fashioned grit is required. Watson stepped up admirably. For a start, he had no right to make this stunning, try-saving tackle:
Dean Hammond goes high in contact, so this is a straight-up test of upper-body strength. Using the small in-goal area and the touchline to his advantage, the tenacious Watson wins. Minutes later, his positioning got Bath out of trouble again:
Second-guessing an opponent as intuitive as Chris Pennell is a triumph in itself. Isolating the moment Watson swoops to pick up off his bootlaces, we can appreciate the significant skill:
With Pennell in close attendance, Watson bravely comes forwards and cleans up without breaking stride.
Such unfussy details may be more prominent than box-office attack in what could be an ugly arm wrestle as England look to stave off their fifth straight loss this weekend. Bryan Habana will certainly relish chasing kicks towards a two-cap rival.
It should be fascinating. In any case, Lancaster can be absolutely confident that he has a mightily promising prospect among his ranks.
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