Hamish Watson: Scotland’s returning hero

Possibly the biggest ‘What if?’ from Scotland’s 2019 Guinness Six Nations revolves around Hamish Watson.

Possibly the biggest ‘What if?’ from Scotland’s 2019 Guinness Six Nations revolves around Hamish Watson.

In a Championship that saw Gregor Townsend robbed at various points of the likes of Stuart Hogg, Huw Jones and Finn Russell through injury, that is quite some claim.

But such was the impact that Watson made at the back end of the Championship – in only 102 minutes of action, in fact – that many Scotland fans were left to rue what might have been.

A broken hand sustained in Edinburgh’s European clash with Montpellier in January came at just the wrong time for the openside.

That is not to overlook the contribution of Jamie Ritchie, who slotted into the Scotland back row for his first-ever Championship and looked to the manor born.

But there is a reason that Watson is starting for Edinburgh this weekend in the No.7 jersey against Munster in their crunch quarter-final and Ritchie is on the bench.

There is a reason that Edinburgh saved Watson’s new contract announcement to last on Monday – choosing to broadcast four other new faces before his new deal.

And that reason is that Watson has marked himself out in his first 25 caps for his country as a flanker of world-class quality – and the Scottish capital have welcomed him as one of their heroes.

Born in England, but a Scotland supporter through his grandparents since his schooldays, Watson has long been a stand-out for club and country.

But his heroics in this year’s Championship appear to have taken him to the next level.

A limpet over the ball, particularly in last year’s Calcutta Cup win over England, Watson is also also a ball-carrier of bullocking brilliance.

With his cameo off the bench against Wales in Round Four, Watson beat an astonishing ten defenders in just 22 minutes of action – that was a Scotland record in the Championship.

He added four defenders beaten more against England in the Twickenham thriller to take his Championship total to 14 – no forward managed more in the entire Championship and only Demba Bamba could match him, despite playing 210 more minutes.

With an uncanny ability to bounce off would-be tacklers that belies his slighter frame, Watson also picks fantastic running lines and has the sort of close-quarter footwork that most backs would be proud of.

Watson’s return to Edinburgh duty this weekend is also boosted by the news that John Barclay is also back in action.

The Scotland skipper missed the entire 2019 Championship but won the man-of-the-match award on his club return last time out against Leinster, proving he has not missed a step in his prolonged absence.

Barclay and Watson have dovetailed superbly for Scotland, and this weekend is the first chance for Edinburgh fans to watch them in tandem for club duty as well.

And with the brilliant Bill Mata at No.8, the balance in the Edinburgh back row is the envy of nearly every side in Europe.

But Munster will also take some stopping this weekend – Ireland stars CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony are back in the back row alongside Jack O’Donoghue.

Ireland stormed BT Murrayfield successfully during the 2019 Championship, so expect sparks to fly in a titanic back row tussle that will go a long way to deciding who emerges victorious.

Watson was injured the last time Edinburgh and Munster faced off in a crucial clash – last season’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final qualifier.

And he had not yet cracked the first team the last time Edinburgh made the knockout rounds at Europe’s top table back in 2011-12.

All of which means the flanker will be a man on a mission this Saturday at BT Murrayfield.

“I played a few games that year (2012) but with Europe, I was very much looking in from the outside. I was in training with the players but I was looking at Europe more as a fan,” he said.

“I remember it as a really exciting experience for everyone and to get 40,000 at Murrayfield for a club game was very special. If we can get that again, it will be amazing for the fans. I’ve never played in front of that many fans for Edinburgh, so it will be a huge game and we have to make sure we take our opportunity.

“We’re in the Champions Cup quarter-final, pushing for play-offs in consecutive years. We’ve managed to keep high-profile players, so it really does feel that we’re going in the right direction.

“From the group stages, we’ve shown we’re good enough to beat anyone on our day. I suppose we’re still at the stage where we can be off our game. If we want to beat the best teams in Europe, we have to be playing right at our best. It’s not like some teams who might be able to get by a bit below their best. We think we can beat any team in Europe but we have to be firing on all cylinders and all have really good games.”