Scottish flanker Hamish Watson has the motor and mongrel to be a game changer for the British & Irish Lions come the three tests against the Springboks, writes Oliver Keohane.
I’m always hesitant to talk absolutes after one game, especially when it is against a domestic side and the first game of an eight-match tour. But Hamish Watson, in his debut match for the British & Irish Lions, made an impact against the Sigma Lions that is hard to ignore.
The Emirates Lions, the weakest domestic outfit on offer in South Africa’s domestic landscape, were always going to be on the receiving end of 40 points from the British & Lions, but it was never going to be because of the forwards getting bullied. The Sigma Lions, when keeping it tight, showed real ticker and at times when the ball was moving no further than two phases from the ruck, prevented the touring side from contending. The men from Joburg were never going to be able to match the class of the British & Irish Lions backs though, and their defence was consistently stretched and their backline attack nullified by an organised opposition system.
In light of this, Watson’s performance is all the more pertinent, because he stood head and shoulders above every other forward on the field against a pack that while not of test quality just yet, presented a typically big and tough South African challenge.
Watson was a menace around the field, with ball in hand and on defence. He scored an early try, assisted one and was a disruptive force for the full match showing not only skill and physical presence, but immense fitness in a game played at altitude. In a clash where winger Josh Adams contributed four tries to the 56-14 scoreline, Watson was awarded Man of the Match. It was a special performance.
Renowned UK writer Stephen Jones expressed concern earlier in the year that Watson, at 185m and 101kg would fall short against South African counterparts, in an article titled Lightweight Hamish Watson is no match for the Springboks. This was a view also shared by my dad pre -the tour. I appreciate the respect for the size of our Springboks, but I’ve seen much bigger players (South Africans included) offer much less in every department, and anything Watson lacks in weight and height is made up for in strength and attitude. He is also deceptively quick off the mark, and it was unexpected to see a player of his build cut so quickly through defenders from broken play.
Watson would need to be complimented by a big number 8 and flanker, if picked to start against the Boks, and more for height reasons than anything related to physical strength. Luckily for the Lions, they have a few option, and Warren Gatland would do well to back him as a wild card, because he is the type of player who could prove disruptive to the Springboks rigid structure.
Teams often fail when trying to beat their opposition at their own game. Just because because the Boks have loose trio options that pretty much all have the height to play lock, does not mean that the Lions need to pick players of similar stature in order to win. The Lions need to pick players who are in form, players who are fit, and players who have 80 minutes of collision coded into their bodies and minds.
Hamish Watson is one of those players, and on record I’m breaking my rule of no-first-match assumptions to say that Gatland must find place for him to play every test against the Springboks.