There are some nicknames in rugby that require a little digging, others tell you everything you need to know there and then. In just seven letters ‘Pinball’ perfectly encapsulates Hamish Watson’s playing style.
It might not be quite as satisfying as Nobody (John Eales because Nobody’s perfect) or 36 (Billy Twelvetrees – Twelve threes said in an Irish accent by former Leicester teammate Geordan Murphy).
But Pinball – one of Watson’s two nicknames along with the slightly less imaginative but more common ‘Mish’ – fits Scotland’s openside flanker perfectly.
At 1m85 and 102kg, you would not describe Watson as lightweight, but he is far from the most imposing forward in the Guinness Six Nations.
Give him the ball though, and he will barrel through opponents much bigger than him and transform even the slowest, most static ball into a platform to attack.
Add in the fact that he is relentless in defence and an absolute menace at the breakdown, and it is only fitting that he has followed in the footsteps of his Scotland captain Stuart Hogg in being named Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship.
Hogg achieved the feat twice, in back-to-back years in 2016 and 2017, and Watson now becomes the second Scot to enter the select group of winners.
He does so after spearheading a Scottish campaign that saw them end two unwanted winless streaks.
BREAKING THE TWICKENHAM CURSE
It all began at Twickenham, back in early February as Scotland finally ended the hoodoo that had endured since 1983.
There had been previous opportunities of course, not least the bonkers 38-38 draw two years earlier in which Watson certainly played his part.
But this year was different. The final score may have been 11-6, but this was as dominant a performance as Scotland had produced on the road in many a year.
Hogg got the official Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match nod, but it could easily have been Watson. It was apt that his final turnover sealed the victory, even if he would probably have hoped for a little more conviction when booting the ball off the park, knowing that moment will likely be replayed for so many years to come.
It was a far cry from his Scotland debut. Back in 2015 Watson entered the fray at BT Murrayfield with his side nursing a one-point lead at home to Italy and half an hour remaining.
Watson played 29 minutes before pulling down a maul as Scotland desperately defended their line. The penalty try was awarded, Watson was packed off to the sin-bin and the Azzurri snatched victory.
Thankfully for Watson, it has all been uphill since then.
While he was born in Manchester and was part of the Leicester Tigers academy, Watson only ever had eyes for Scotland internationally.
After representing them at age group level and in Sevens, he has now established himself as the bedrock of the Scottish pack.
In the 2021 Guinness Six Nations, the stats jump off the page. Only CJ Stander made more carries than Watson’s 67, his 55 tackles were enough to crack the top 15 for most tackles, and unlike all of those above him, Watson did not miss a single one. Five of those were dominant, again good enough for seventh equal, while no forward came close to his 14 broken tackles.
It is this final stat that reveals the most about Watson. In a Scotland team that in the past has perhaps struggled for ball carriers, Watson so often makes up the shortfall.
That has been evident for a while now. Just cast your minds back to his cameo off the bench against Wales in 2019 when in 15 minutes he caused absolute chaos against the team that went on to win the Grand Slam.
In 2021 he had plenty more moments like that, playing all but 14 minutes of Scotland’s campaign.
Against Wales he was a major contributor in what looked set to be a second straight win, only for Wayne Pivac’s eventual champions to turn things around in dramatic fashion.
In the loss to Ireland, Watson’s powerful finish drew Scotland level in a game where they had been well off their best, only for Johnny Sexton’s last-gasp penalty to deny them.
And then against Italy he was deservedly named Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match in a convincing victory, six years on from that fateful debut at BT Murrayfield.
However it was on the road that Watson showed his value most. First in that game at Twickenham, and then again at the Stade de France.
In the final sequence that ended with Duhan van der Merwe’s match-winning try, you only have to look at just how many times Watson is first man in to clear out as France go for the turnover that would have secured the win. With the clock well into the red and after everything he had already done during the game, Watson would simply not allow Scotland to miss this chance.
Some 22 years after a team spearheaded by his now coach Gregor Townsend, Scotland were victorious in Paris once more.
They have got the monkeys of Twickenham and the Stade de France off their backs, not to mention a first away win in Wales since 2002 at the tail end of last year.
And Pinball has led the way on each occasion. Time and again Watson has shown himself to be the man for the big moments and now the rewards have followed.