Saturday 24 March 2018

Chelsea's loss is England's gain as Watson finds his feet

Anthony Watson runs with the ball during the England training session
Anthony Watson runs with the ball during the England training session

Chris Hewett

Stuart Lancaster would have needed an unusually good reason to tinker with the England starting line-up following the deeply resourceful Six Nations victory over Wales a week ago.

The head coach admitted yesterday that he had been unable to find one. But he still wants to see changes - in pizzazz, if not in personnel - against Italy at Twickenham tomorrow, with the wing Anthony Watson at the forefront of his thinking.

Watson was quite something at the Millennium Stadium: if the overarm inside flick he delivered after plucking the ball out of the Cardiff night sky had ended up in red-rose hands rather than been intercepted by a retreating Welshman, all betting on the "try of the tournament" award would have been suspended. But Lancaster believes England have barely scratched the surface with a youngster blessed with once-in-a-generation attacking gifts.

"He's been thrown in at the deep end as far as international rugby is concerned," the coach said of the 20-year-old Bath back, "yet he's been so good at mastering the basics. His ability to understand our defensive system and fit into it quickly, his aerial skills... those aspects have been exceptional. Yet we still haven't found a way of giving him the ball in space, which is his main point of difference."

In other words, there is far more to come, once a way is found of unlocking that space.

Lancaster has been keeping a close watch on Watson for the last three years: during the autumn Test series at Twickenham in 2013, the coach was quietly talking him up as a member of his World Cup back division. Not merely a "potential" member, but a "probable" member.

The one-time Chelsea football trialist would have been picked earlier had he talked as good a game as he was playing. However, when Lancaster sat him down for his customary fireside chat, the wing came across as the teenager he was.

It is a very different story now. "I've definitely grown in confidence," Watson said. "I understand that the mental side of rugby is paramount. Years ago, I'd have been massively nervous going into a hostile environment like the Millennium Stadium. Last week, I think I struck the right balance between calmness and excitement."

Chelsea's loss looks like being England's gain, not that Watson ever saw himself as a footballer. "I was a striker but a pretty rubbish one," he admitted. "I think I was just quick. The main thing was trying to outdo my older brother Marcus (who played at England U-20 level). Anyway, my dad always preferred watching union to football." (© Independent News Service)

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