Things had already worked out pretty nicely for Bath, England and Lions ace Anthony Watson. But by exploring new perspectives, could he unlock even more potential?
There can be liberation in accepting that change is needed. In an age when it feels like the mere concepts of compromise, concession and even accepting help can be lost amongst the angry voices, we may not notice how those who embrace them have grown. At first.
For example, it was the fear of an outsider, not an established name who had earned 36 Test caps, when Anthony Watson panicked about being asked to leave England’s pre-World Cup camp in 2019. He had only just come back from a 17-month ordeal where he had injured, and then shockingly reinjured, his Achilles.
Then this. And although Eddie Jones reassured him time and again that his excursion wasn’t a sign that the coach was ready to cut the cord, we all know it’s the guys on the fringe that get sent away…
To make things that little bit – weirder is probably the right word? – Watson was not going back to his club in Bath but heading to Loughborough to train with the well-known sprint coach Jonas Dodoo. As Watson tells Rugby World of his mindset at the time, “I was absolutely bricking it!”
Watson would of course go to Japan and feature in six matches as England hammered towards a World Cup final, starting five of them. Today he hails Jones’s plan to send him away for individual training as a masterstroke. However, he may be skimming over how important it was that he took to a path he may not have envisioned running down even a few years before.
Watson explains: “When I was sent away I was wondering, ‘Why? Why has this happened? Am I being dropped?’ I was so confused.
“I am so grateful. That one week extra that I had with Jonas helped me so much in terms of feeling out my body again, as I was still getting used to my left foot because of the Achilles (injury). I would credit Jonas so much in terms of how I felt at the World Cup.
“It’s a bit more difficult from a player’s point of view to understand the injury prevention side of things. But from a speed point of view, the one thing that stuck out to me was that unless you run fast regularly, how can you protect your body from not getting broken when you need to run fast? One thing that I learnt with Jonas was that every week you have got to try to run at least 85 or 90% of your top speed to protect your hamstrings when they are required to run at 100%.”
If it sounds like a change was made before the World Cup, changes came afterwards too. Watson explains that it dawned on him that Japan’s onsen culture made so much sense in terms of recovery. Having splashed around in the natural hot springs and come out feeling refreshed, he reconsidered his approach to recovery back with Bath.
He laughs that his partner hates the terminology, but upon his return from the World Cup he sorted out his “recovery centre”. Sauna, cold baths, even an hyperbaric chamber have become part of his regular routine and in Watson’s recent lockdown workouts he has chased down training gains.
Perhaps there is something in having a more individual approach tacked on after all the teamwork. Cohesion and a willingness to do what’s best for the collective is vital in rugby, of course, but you don’t have to work exclusively as a cog in the big machine. Watson feels reinvigorated since taking a closer look at himself; in marrying the individual training work with the group ethos, he could get the best of both worlds.
“It probably took me a few years to really understand that you do get out of it what you put in”
At just 26, there is more room to improve. Which must be Christmas-day exciting for any young athlete to recognise. Obviously he has already achieved incredible things in rugby, but imagine if it had all clicked sooner.
“Oh mate, I’ve changed ridiculously since I started playing,” Watson offers on the passing of time. “You always hear people say what they’d do if they could go back to when they were 18, 19, if they could know what they know now.
“Jesus, I feel like I would be a whole different person at 18, 19. I’ve just learnt so much, particularly over the last two or three years. I probably just went with the flow way too much between the ages of 19 and 22. I didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. I didn’t really want to understand what I was trying to do, from a rugby perspective. And that probably hindered me a fair bit.
“I wouldn’t say that I skipped those first two or three years. But if I could go back and change them, I feel like I could have got a lot more out of them than I did. Things like trying to understand the game better and how important certain things to do with rugby are. We spoke about the recovery stuff, there’s the mental side of things… Just understanding what I was trying to get out of the sport. And then the most fundamental one really is just that ‘no one can do it for you’.
“Not that I was expecting anyone to do it for me, but I was just happy to go with the flow and see where it took me. As opposed to trying to make it happen and making sure that I left no stone unturned. Then you can’t blame yourself, can you? So staying after training, the work ethic side of things. It probably took me a few years to really understand that you do get out of it what you put in. It’s not that it bothers me, I just wish I knew that.”
At first Watson says there was never a lightning bolt moment when he realised the true value of changing his approach. More that it settled in over time.
Arriving in Bath from London Irish, he recalls being taken aback by the level of extra work George Ford put in. He was out there kicking for two hours or more after training; Watson was already in, showering. Ford would go home, hunker down and crush match footage; Watson was glued to his PlayStation. At the time Watson was just enjoying his life. And it’s not like he was slacking.
But pausing, he admits that if there was a time to be struck by a bolt from above, it was when he went through his Achilles hell. He realised how much he relied on rugby for his happiness, how quickly that joy could disappear. So he looked at maximising his potential.
There is no denying that what separates Watson from rivals, literally and figuratively, is his explosiveness. Often we can oversimplify and ignore the graft that has gone into making a performer, well, perform. But talk to Dodoo about what makes Watson the athlete unique and it opens your eyes to a whole world of technical difference.
As an example, take him and his brother Marcus, the Wasps wing who has shone with both England and GB Sevens, winning Olympic silver in 2016. According to Dodoo, there is quite a difference between the pair. Anthony’s power output per step is “through the roof” but he will not have the same frequency of steps as brother Marcus. Anthony is more explosive, while Marcus is more reactive.
And although they are not related, there is such a close bond between Watson and his Bath and England team-mate Jonathan Joseph that Dodoo says he often thinks of them as brothers. These two are polar opposites in terms of style, according to both the coach and Watson.
It is that difference, perhaps, that means the pair work so well off each other in attack. Dodoo sees Watson as more of a straight-line runner, relying on incredible acceleration, deceleration and acceleration again in order to cut opposition defences to ribbons. While Joseph, Dodoo says, relies much more on “swivel” – he can go from running at full-pace forwards to moving sideways while maintaining his speed.
At this point, there is cause to take a pause. In the previous thousand words, was it clear enough that Watson thinks a great deal about his game, that he is much more than just a physically gifted athlete? It’s worth considering. In recent months, the words we use to describe black and minority athletes have rightly come under scrutiny.
“I definitely think that the language needs to be thought about more,” Watson says of the subject. As the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed us to have necessary discussions about how we interact with one another, a study into racial bias used in football commentary came into public view.
In the study, it was revealed that footballers with lighter skin are significantly more likely to be praised for their intellect, work-rate and quality compared with those with darker skin, who are also almost seven times more likely to be praised for their power and over three times more likely to have their pace mentioned. Watson agrees some elements of the study into unconscious bias were “outrageous”.
Going on from the need to think more about language used, he adds: “Especially in certain areas. If ‘work-rate’ has been raised then definitely people need to think about that a little bit closer.
“And I’d also suggest, potentially, that when commentators talk about attitude problems a lot of the time that’s towards mixed race, black or BAME players across sports. Some of that might be with perfect reason, but I still feel like black people don’t get the benefit of the doubt with some issues like that, whereas white people do, and I have felt that in rugby for sure.”
Watson spoke eloquently on BBC 5 Live’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast special on rugby and race and what it was like for him as a child of mixed race. He adds that education is a key aspect with this. He also talks about the power of seeing someone who looks like you working their own way to the top and doing incredible things. As for talking publicly, he says the time to just ‘shut up and do your sport’ is well and truly over.
And in perfect step with his approach to changing the way he takes to his craft, Watson believes that it would benefit us all if we made a habit of listening to other’s points of view.
“More open dialogue has to be the way forward,” he says. “You can’t just expect people to learn if you don’t help them. Explain why you were offended or it just doesn’t make sense. So I think that continuing to speak about it and continuing to understand different points of view as well is important.
“I’ve spoken to quite a few boys. I’ve spoken to Maro (Itoje), to Beno (Obano), I’ve spoken to Courtney Lawes. Generally they’ve all got pretty differing point of views – along the same lines but different – and understanding them, while still understanding your own viewpoint, is important.
“And people not being able to change their view is a big bugbear of mine. Some people are too stubborn, they’ll just fight a losing battle just to fight. That doesn’t make any sense to me. If you’re wrong, admit it. Even if it’s midway through an argument, admit you’re wrong, once you’ve thought about it.
“It happens with me and Beno quite a bit. We will just be arguing over random stuff. It could be anything. He is very strong in his arguments, and I can often see his perspective and there are times mid-argument when I’m just like, ‘Oh yeah, you are right, actually’. My biggest bugbear is when people can’t do that and they continue to argue there for three hours!”
It’s okay to concede. It’s okay to hear other views. It can help you move forward.
With Bath, Watson hopes that they can now discover their cutting edge and begin winning the close scraps, coming away with four points from any eyesore of a game. But they are not far away, Watson adds, which is what continues to push him. He feels the club is in a good place and when it all finally clicks for the West Country side, look out.
“That was the worst pain I’ve ever been in, in my life, for those eight weeks”
Of course, 2021 is also Lions year. Watson was a starter in 2017, and feels he has transformed his approach since. He says, if selected, he’d be a different player but at the same time would want to replicate the happy feeling he carried through the last tour.
He must have been in good nick back then?
“Well, actually it was the worst physically I’ve been!” he replies. “That was the worst pain I’ve ever been in, in my life, for those eight weeks. My Achilles tendon was like… Well, the pain was a joke.
“But mentally I felt so good. I don’t know why. To be honest, I wasn’t nervous for any of those Tests. It just felt so good in terms of all the preparation I had done and I just backed myself completely. But from a physical point of view, I was on the other end of the spectrum.
“When I got subbed off in the third Test, I was gutted because I wanted to play, but the pain I had in my Achilles I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I had to load my Achilles (put a weighted load on your back, go on your tiptoes for around 45 seconds, for three sets) at pretty much every hotel we went to. So the team would have to carry in plates and set up a (weights) bar in the middle of team areas, like a squat rack, for me to load my Achilles. I had to do that twice a day. It was agony.”
Which offers a snapshot of Watson’s tenacity. But with the renewed approach to the game, to recovery, in listening to peers and accepting change, you fancy that the Englishman can be even more troublesome to face four years further down the track.
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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