England winger’s mother could not watch her son due to fears of him getting hurt, writes Steve James
You can hardly blame Viv Watson. It is hard enough for us neutral observers to watch some of the collisions seen on today’s rugby fields. You wince and hope the combatants rise to their feet afterwards, which so often they do not do immediately.
However, imagine being a mother watching her son being battered by these behemoths. It must be hell. And that is why when Anthony Watson was younger and at his first club London Irish before moving to Bath his mother, Viv, simply could not watch. “She used to watch the games in the car in the car park at London Irish,” Watson says.
“It was wet and cold and she would read a book instead of watching the game. It was a case of her not wanting to see me get hurt and go into contact and stuff like that.”
And also a case of her not really liking the game despite the rugby madness that pervades the family. “My mum isn’t a really big fan of rugby,” Watson says. “She is into tennis and snooker – I don’t really get it. My dad used to play for Saracens A team but he had a pretty bad knee injury and he had to stop playing.
“My older brother [Marcus] used to play in the Sevens and now he has gone to Newcastle and my little brother [Callum] has just signed for London Irish.
“I have been playing since I was five or six and the competitive nature we have between us as brothers is probably what allowed me to get into the position I am in.”
Apparently Mum has improved her dread for her son’s health. “She used to be a lot worse, I think she has got better now,” Watson says. “But she knows more about the players and the dates of birth than she does about the game.”
But still she may be a little apprehensive on Friday night, because opposite Watson when England face Fiji in their Rugby World Cup opener at Twickenham is likely to be Nemani Nadolo, who stands at 6ft 5in and weighs in at 20st. Watson is 6ft 2in and 14st 9lb.
Nadolo has won only four of his 20 caps on the wing, the rest being at centre, but was on the left wing when Fiji beat Canada last weekend and therefore could face Watson, who has now made the England No 14 shirt, the right-winger’s spot, his own.
“I have played against big boys in the past, the likes of [Wales wing] George North and it is a good opportunity if I get the chance to play against someone like that,” Watson says. “It is something I look forward to and trying to impose my game on a player like that will be a massive challenge, but that is part and parcel of why a lot of us play rugby – that physical confrontation.
“That is something I relish going into the game and I would like to impose different elements of my game against a player like that and that will important throughout the World Cup. There are going to be other wingers who are going to be big like Nadolo, so it is important for us to know that we can perform against players like that.”
Interestingly, though, when asked about his toughest opponent, Watson nominates a much smaller man, one standing at just 5ft 9in and 13 stones.
“One of the hardest players I have had to defend was David Lemi,” he says. “I found him pretty tough – for Worcester and for Bristol. Physically he was pretty hard to defend, he has got good footwork and that made it a tough day. He is different but that was three or four years ago and I tried to learn the lessons from playing against a player like that.
“I learnt a lot that day and I played against him again in the Samoa game last autumn and I felt pretty comfortable in that game. I had done my homework on him and played against him in the past so I knew roughly what to expect. I had learnt my lesson so I felt like I was ready.”
It is the theme of Watson’s career. He appears to be a very quick learner, whether it is working on his footwork with England colleagues Jack Nowell and Jonny May – “We just do one‑on‑ones and try and work on weaknesses, say if you don’t like going off one foot or something like that,” he says – or on his speed with sprint coach Jonas Tawiah Dodoo at Bath.
It was only last autumn that he was making his Test debut, coming off the bench for his Bath colleague Semesa Rokoduguni. He has started every Test since, bar the second warm-up Test in Paris this summer.
In the first warm-up he scored two tries, the first of which revealed some bewitching footwork to stand up Brice Dulin and race to the corner. It is little surprise that Jason Robinson, along with Jonny Wilkinson, is one of his heroes. Watson can remember watching both of them win the 2003 World Cup final.
“I was nine,” he says. “I was watching TV at home, my older brother and my dad were watching it at the rugby club and me and my little brother were watching it at home. All I can remember is the drop goal and jumping up and down on the sofa.
“Of that team I would say Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson were the guys I really admired: Jonny Wilkinson because of his work ethic and the way he went about it and Jason Robinson because of his ability to change the game pretty rapidly and the way the crowd expected something to happen every time he got the ball – he was borderline unstoppable.”
They could be soon saying the same about Watson if the 21-year-old continues his rapid advancements.
He now has five tries in 11 Tests, having scored against Ireland last weekend from George Ford’s precision cross kick. He is becoming like a striker (and he was once at Wimbledon’s academy) who scores regularly.
“There is more to a winger’s game but it is massively important to score tries as a winger,” he says. “If you get the opportunity with the ball in space you are half expected to finish it. It is important for us to be able to finish when we get the opportunity.”
You suspect he will get plenty of opportunities during the coming weeks, and that he will take more than he misses. Just hope his mum is watching.
- The Telegraph