Vegas trip with Furlong chief among Watson's fond Lions memories

The 27-year-old started all three Tests last time

Watson is in fine form for the Lions.
Watson is in fine form for the Lions.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THERE ARE RESTRICTIONS in place this time around but even still, Anthony Watson has found himself being more sociable on his second Lions tour.

The England international started all three Tests on the trip to New Zealand in 2017 and recalls a post-tour holiday as being a big part of his enjoyment of that experience.

“I’m probably socialising a bit more with people [this time] that I otherwise wouldn’t have,” says Watson.

“I think particularly because of what happened after the trip last time in terms of going to Vegas with Tadhg and a few other guys that I would never have imagined going on a trip with beforehand.

“I think that opened my eyes to the relationships you can build on tours like this with people you didn’t think you would.

“I think that’s allowed me to grow closer to the group and be more in and amongst everyone as opposed to the same usual people that I would be otherwise with.”

Watson laughs as he says he would love to go back to Vegas after this tour of South Africa but it’s obviously looking very unlikely right now.

The 27-year-old isn’t really thinking about holidays just yet, with a huge three weeks ahead of himself and the Lions.

conor-murray-anthony-watson-and-sam-simmonds-celebrate-after-the-game Watson has enjoyed getting to know his team-mates on this tour. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Watson is a favourite for the Test team in many people’s eyes given his previous experience and current form. He can play on the wing or at fullback but appreciates that there is hot competition for back three slots from Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams, Duhan van der Merwe, Josh Adams, and Louis Rees-Zammit, as well as the versatile Elliot Daly, who has also been playing at outside centre.

Watson explains that the back three players in the Lions squad are a tight group despite the competition for places.

Whoever makes up the back three announced by Warren Gatland on Thursday morning will need to be prepared for plenty of kicking. The Springboks are masters in this area, while the Lions are sure to kick heavily too, meaning plenty of involvements in the air for the back three.

“There are so many components to it that I don’t think are recognised widely,” says Watson. “First and foremost, the quality of the kick – that’s important for whichever team is kicking the ball.

“Secondly, if you’re chasing it’s trying to compete in the air wherever possible. Decision-making on whether to go up and compete or to try and catch the ball, tap it back or try and wait for them to land and counter-ruck. There are quite a few decisions to be made when it comes to kick chase.

“If the kick is too long, making sure you’re not disconnected from whoever is inside you. And then on the flip side, it’s making sure you try to negate their kick chase by making sure you’re aware of where their chaser is, whether he’s going to compete in the air, and try to protect whoever is catching the ball.

“And there’s obviously the skillset of being able to catch the ball and having the confidence to get up in the air and trust that you’re ready for that because you know it’s coming.”

anthony-watson-leaves-the-dressing-room Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

‘Escorting’ is a big part of any winger’s job, as they look to legally obstruct opposition players chasing kicks in order to give their team-mates time and space to field the ball.

There is a fine line in this area.

“It’s tricky,” says Watson. “You’ve just got to be aware of where that opposition chaser is and you can’t change your line. So for me, I just try and work back as hard as I can with the person inside me and straight back to the catcher. 

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“That’s what I feel is the best way of dealing with it because, you know, any change of line, they’re going to be hot on it and it’s just a silly penalty to give away.”

As well as actually fielding kicks, the Lions’ back three players will also need to be sharp and alert with regards to their backfield cover.

The Springboks’ kicking game involves much more than just hanging up contestables and they will constantly look to find grass in the backfield, meaning the Lions’ defensive organisation and communication will need to be excellent.

In that regard, Watson says they have been gelling well.

“The back three group and the centres are very close and we tell each other what we need, what we like, and that helps,” explains Watson, who has had to deal with a toe injury on this tour.

“And it works with the centres as well, I think particularly having guys like Robbie Henshaw in the middle who has played at 12, 13, played a bit at fullback, the same with Elliot. Bundee has played 12 and 13, Chris Harris has played 12 and 13. 

“A lot of guys along the whole backline have interchanged positions and that’s very helpful in terms of understanding what specific positions need in specific situations because they’re able to help out a lot more and are more understanding of situations where positions are isolated or pressurised.

“So I don’t think it’s been too difficult, everyone’s on the same page and everyone is very understanding.”

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Murray Kinsella

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