There is something enormously engaging about Anthony Watson, a smile and a pleasant greeting as he languidly rises from a leather chesterfield at Farleigh House, Bath Rugby’s palatial training HQ, despite the prospect of yet another pre-season interview.
To look at, he is the antithesis of an old school rugby player with mauled ears and battered features. Yet this is the man who, in this summer’s second test for the Lions, received such a brutal shoulder charge in the face it was surprising not to see his teeth spinning like so many flipped coins into the New Zealand sky.
Yet, despite a jaw injury that kept him out of the game for three months, riding tackles has been his meat and drink for the last seven years following his youthful debut into top class rugby. “At London Irish I was thrust into the first team training squad at somewhere around 16 or 17 and I did feel very young in an older squad. However, I was lucky to have worked with coaches Neil Hatley and Toby Booth before. They always said to me ‘if I was good enough then I was old enough’”. Nonetheless Watson’s full call up to the exiles squad meant he was their youngest ever player.
The same was true of his England career which commenced at the age of 19 when, on the 8th November 2014, he was called from the bench to make his debut against New Zealand. As Watson confesses, “it was tough going into the England setup for the first time. I didn’t know many people and I was pretty shy at that age. I don’t think I even went to breakfast the first day so as to avoid talking to people”.
However, it wasn’t just his team mates of which he was in awe, it was also the opposition. “It was really odd playing against people I had grown up watching; idols like Craig Hooper (top three rugby inspiration for me) and Sonny Bill Williams.” Yet clearly Watson’s idolatry was not reciprocated, for Williams was the player with that bone crunching, face re-arranging, tackle, from the Lions Tour, which earned the New Zealander a sending off. Yet Watson bears Williams little malice.
“I don’t think he tried to hurt me on purpose. I was going to ground and he got himself in a compromised positon. But he had the decency and manners to apologise to me afterwards on Twitter. Then, when I went to Fiji following the Lions tour, we met up in one of the hotels we were staying in. We shared a drink together and it was all alright.”
Despite playing football when younger, Watson’s background is strongly in the oval ball game. One of three rugby playing brothers, his father also played for Saracens before injury cut his career short. As Watson recalls, “when I was younger my dad just loved to come and watch his sons play sport, any sport really. He also used to give me sweets if I played well. But I wouldn’t say he pushed me towards rugby. My Mum was different; she is not really into sport having grown up in Nigeria. She says she ran track but I’m a bit dubious about that”.
Family background and religion have always been a significant influence on Watson. “When I first came to Bath several of the players and coaches had come over from London Irish, so in rugby terms it was not such a change, but the big difference was moving away from home, friends and an environment that was familiar. I was also brought up as a Catholic and went to a Catholic School. My Mum is very devout. I have her favourite Bible scripture as a tattoo which is a reminder to me of where I came from and the values that come from the religion I was brought up in”.
It is noticeable that amidst all the banter of professional sport those values show through with a sense of responsibility that belies his youth (still just 23). For example: “You look round at the academy boys and players coming through, quality players like young Levy Davis, he looks like a special player to me. If we can help them as senior dudes then that’s good” and “I need to learn from the Lions tour to help those around me”.
However, Watson is also very focussed on his own future and that of his club. “When you rely on speed, I recognise that can fade, so you have to work on becoming a smarter player. That’s why you spend time working on skills. For me personally in the future winning something with Bath would be huge, but we need to win something very soon. I would also love to get to 50 caps for England. That’s always been a goal of mine”.
Given his rapid rise through the rugby ranks and that he was one of England’s players to play in all three Lions matches this summer, few would doubt his potential to achieve such an ambition.