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By Jeremy Guscott
MY player of the season is Anthony Watson. The Bath and England full-back/wing is currently on the sidelines following an operation to a snapped Achilles tendon sustained during the Ireland match, but until his injury the progress that he made following the Lions tour was exceptional.
There are very few players that I’ve seen who have come back from a Lions tour and improved. The Lions generally has a flattening-out process where players struggle to match their tour achievements when they get back to domestic rugby.
It is hard to go from the glare of such an intense spotlight in a new environment, with huge media interest and thousands of travelling fans generating a torrent of excitement, to suddenly being back in club rugby with stadiums you know and tournaments you are so familiar with.
The reality is that it is not so big. Match days change because the level of intensity is simply less – and that applies even when you go to Leicester where there is always a partisan atmosphere with more than 20,000 people on the ground.
That is why it takes huge mental strength to come back to domestic rugby and hit the ground running, especially after your first Lions tour. At 24, Watson appeared to take it all in his stride, and he came back a much better player after a string of excellent performances on the wing, including in all three Tests.
However, to return home and take it further a few weeks later by becoming Bath’s best player, generating a buzz of anticipation from the crowd of the Rec whenever you get the ball, takes determination, focus, and a desire to be the best.
His switch to full-back at Bath saw him make an immediate impact. He was always looking for space after catching the ball, and invariably made a break which led to him either linking to create a try, or scoring himself.
Lots of players go on Lions tours because they are prominent before the tour, but when they get there they fall away. The opposite happened with Watson, and my impression is that he got everything out of the Lions tour he could.
On my first Lions tour in 1989 I didn’t expect to get in the Test team, but they lost the first Test, had a couple of injuries, and got panned in the Press – so I got my chance. My mindset when I went to Australia was to embrace everything the Lions offered, and to be like a sponge when it came to soaking up information.
I remember watching how other players trained to see if I could add it to my own preparation, and it seems to me that Watson has done the same. The benefit is that being around the best players in Britain and Ireland, and going with the intention to learn and improve, their qualities rub off on you – and that is what has happened to Watson.
He did not go to New Zealand as a number one choice, but he knuckled down and came through strongly. That means that he did not allow any distractions to get in his way, and that he impressed the coaches by really applying himself in training. The result was that Watson became an important attacking weapon for the Lions, and defensively he also made very few mistakes in the Test series.
You cannot underestimate the level of improvement that Watson has made in recent seasons, and his progress matches the incremental gains that Owen Farrell has made to become so important to England, and Saracens. At first Farrell was no great threat in attack, but he has worked hard at it and now opponents cannot afford to give him any space.
Watson is the same. At first you could see that he had impressive straight-line running speed, and that he was brave under the high ball, but he was not a constant threat. Now he is, especially as he is getting closer to Mike Brown’s strength in the air at full-back. These days he offers a real attacking threat from the back, in a way that Brown has not done so much over the last couple of seasons.
Where Bath have been inconsistent this season, Watson has been the opposite. Where the Six Nations is concerned it is difficult for any full-back to bring a momentum change when their forwards are on the back foot as much as England’s were – but Watson’s strike rate of 15 tries in 33 Tests shows what he can do when he gets the chance.
In the end I was torn between Watson and Conor Murray as player of the season. Murray is the backbone of Munster, stood out for Ireland in a Grand Slam season, and was a big player for the Lions. He is a key influencer in most games he plays in, and is remarkably consistent in producing high-grade rugby.
What pulled me towards Watson is that he did not strike you as having the same mental strength as Farrell, or Murray, but the way that he refused to let his standards fall after the Lions tour tells us that he does.
Ireland’s Lions players like Murray also had the advantage of having a decent break between the tour and the start of their new season, whereas Watson did it without being well rested.
He will need all that determination to get back to top form after an Achilles injury which is bound to make him feel tentative when he returns. However, if he bounces back from it he will be one of the first names on the England team sheet, and also for the Lions tour to South Africa in 2021.
I would go even further and say that it will not be long before they talk about Watson in the same breath as Farrell and Billy Vunipola. He will become a superstar, he is that good.
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