He can become a major attacking weapon for England but there is room for improvement, says former Test ten Stuart Barnes
England wing Anthony Watson analysed
Sad news for English rugby fans? Anthony Watson was overhyped through the course of the World Cup. The good news is that he retains the ability to be a significant player at France 2023.
To many, his return to the World Cup squad was a triumph in itself. If the ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in the 2018 defeat at the hands of the Grand Slam-winning Ireland team wasn’t bad enough, the ‘re-rupture’ after the failed first surgery threatened to destroy his hopes of making a second World Cup. There was a quad injury, just to threaten the rush for tournament fitness, but Watson made the final training camp and he made the flight to Japan.
Thereafter he did not make that many headlines. He was more the attendant, swelling scenes in which men like Maro Itoje and Manu Tuilagi grabbed the centre stage and with it the spotlight. Yet it was genuinely agreed that his had been a successful World Cup. Successful in terms of how he looked – never anything but threatening – but maybe not so successful in what he achieved.
Watson is, let us not forget, a winger. Rugby union’s equivalent of a centre-forward. The glory boys who grab the headlines and score the tries. Josh Adams topped the try-scoring charts at Japan 2019 with seven tries. True, he suffered the equivalent of a rugby union horror film in Wales’ first-half travails against Fiji.
Run round, occasionally, and over, more often, there was a moment when I swear Adams’s eyes glazed over. But only for the moment. He bounced back to claim a hat-trick in that match. By the end of the competition he had recovered to the extent of being the leading scorer.
Now let us contrast with the England winger. Watson played approximately 410 minutes and scored just the one intercept try in the 76th minute of the quarter-final to end any thoughts of Australian resistance. That is no sort of strike rate for a ‘world-class winger’.
Makazole Mapimpi ran in six, Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima five and his wing partner Kenki Fukuoka four. There is more, much more, to being a professional winger than simply scoring tries but it is still the priority of the wide men.
The enduring memory of the final was the sight of Springbok Cheslin Kolbe in full flight. England captain Owen Farrell sprinted across the field to try to stop him, only to be left clutching at the Japanese air as Kolbe slashed off his right foot to cross for the great celebratory South African score.
The little winger was wondrous against the All Blacks in the pool-stage defeat. He was terrific for Toulouse from beginning to end of the 2018-19 French domestic and European season. Here is undoubtedly that something special from a winger, that something for which we yearn. Watson never looked like providing that instance.
What he did do was carry well in open play. What he did do was make a lot of clean breaks. Ten, more than any other Englishman. It may not have been the tournament for clean English breaks but Watson, more than any other England player, showed the way. It should not come as any surprise.
Some time ago, I came across an interview with the enormous wing Nemani Nadolo. No marks for originality but the mighty Fijian was on the money. The Bath winger, he inferred, could beat an opponent in the proverbial phone box. Where there were phone boxes in the recent World Cup, Watson had the undoubted beating of phone users.
But the strength of Watson’s running at the World Cup wasn’t in any way its game-breaking devastation. Most of the time he was turning nothing too much into a solid sort of something. Not enough of a transformation to describe him as an alchemist but a minor magician. In a team more practical than magical, it caught the eye.
Player ratings are not a scientific way to analyse a player’s performance but the Bath man chalked up eights and nines with frequency. As the thundering Nadolo said, his feet were fabulously fast. Here was a glint of that missing magic. Against New Zealand he was a 9/10 performer. And, yes, here was a stunning performance. But as much for what he did in defence as attack.
The All Blacks destructive cross-kick/passing game was nullified by Watson’s capacity to defend in a narrow enough channel to convince the Kiwis the kick was on. But the speed with which he sprinted back to his wider position and claimed the kick was stunning.
A door that New Zealand kicked open in that victory against South Africa was slammed shut, with Watson applying the bolt. He may not have registered highly on the try-scoring charts but he was one of the smartest wingers in the World Cup.
Considering that double Achilles rupture, this was a notably successful effort from Watson. England went into the competition with a variety of options on the wing. By the end, he and Jonny May were the clear picks in the wide channels.
Head coach Eddie Jones has described the 2019 World Cup squad as “finished”. Some new players will rise, others will fall. Watson should be one of the risers. But in what position?
Given the plethora of options on the wing, his club, Bath, should utilise him at full-back, a position that once looked made for his scything, straight-angled running lines. But the game has changed. The days of a Christian Cullen-like, first-phase strike runner have been temporarily (everything goes full circle) eradicated.
His ability to beat a man off either foot is a precious asset, one that will lead to plenty of tries, as well as assists. But his kicking game isn’t in the same league as that of either the early-season Bath full-back Freddie Burns or the England incumbent Elliot Daly. To play Test level at full-back, he needs further improvement in his kicking game. The territorial battle is one of international rugby’s most decisive battlegrounds.
Daly, undoubtedly, had a desperate final. Yet his kicking and vision is an attacking ace few teams in the world possess. It should be remembered that most of Daly’s errors in Yokohama were more related to a nervous nightmare than positional deficiencies.
Watson is wonderful in the air but this is an age where wingers, either as chasers or receivers, are crucial components of the aerial game.
Watson should be England’s most deadly winger. Right now, May has that mantle – he scored nine Test tries in 2019. The Leicester Tiger has that try-scoring habit that Watson has lost. Both men have absolutely outstanding work-rates but the left-winger has a heads-down selfishness a little lacking in the West Country man. Jones, Stuart Hooper, someone, has to tell him to get back to his priorities: scoring tries.
A tally of 17 tries in 42 Tests for England is not bad but for Watson to become one of the wingers of his decade, he has to start touching down with greater frequency. I think back to his muscular performances against Wales and Australia (he scored a flinty try in defeat) in the 2015 World Cup. Here was a young man with the pace and physique to run up a substantial Test tally.
The talent has not dried up, the physical prowess is no less than it ever has been and he looked lithe as you would like throughout the World Cup. But the predator-like strain to his game was replaced with a man playing his part in the pattern. Time to bust those England chains in the blue, black and white (or whatever colours Bath opt for in their next game) of club and get a little greedy.
Greedier and cleverer. He could do with watching a few hours of Kolbe back in the red of Toulouse. The Frenh club are back to somewhere near their best, playing those touchline to five-metre channels. The trio of the Springbok, Maxime Medard and Yoann Huget create space where there seemingly is none with the accuracy of their running lines in the constricted wide areas of the field.
When it is a 50-50 opportunity, club and country want Watson pinning those ears back and gunning for glory. But when it is three against three, five metres from touch, 50 metres from the try-line, he has to focus not so much on beating the next man as manipulating space for his colleagues. Medard’s renaissance shows the number on the back is irrelevant in these restricted spaces.
Watson is as good as any at stepping past three tacklers and going to ground. What he doesn’t do as well is use his footwork to create space for others. Both Bath and England have a range of explosive options to play alongside him. He can do more for them as well as himself.
A Test Lion and World Cup finalist at 25 years of age. It has already been some career, but there is so much more to come. Yes, for some the World Cup might have been the finish. Not Watson. For him, it is time to start finishing.
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This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Rugby World magazine.
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