Ahead of the NatWest Schools Cup semi finals on Saturday, Fifteen Rugby caught up with England and Bath star Anthony Watson.
Watson was speaking as NatWest launched an initiative as part of their sponsorship of the Schools Cup that will see 30 school players being offered the chance to attend an Academy Day at England’s training base, Pennyhill Park.
Watson has plenty of experience in of the Schools Cup competitions, having reached the Vase final with St George’s College, Weybridge, back in 2011, where they just missed out on the silverware against Solihull. Nevertheless, it is an experience that Watson treasures.
“It was a great experience to be able to do that (play at Twickenham). I found playing in a competition like this drives your competitive edge. It’s knockout rugby from the start so it’s about getting everyone working for that common goal and obviously the pride of being able to play at the home of rugby at Twickenham in front of a good crowd, it’s a dream come true for a schoolboy rugby player.”
Watson’s rise from that 2011 final to where he is now has been meteoric. In 2013 he was a part of the England U20 side that won the Junior World Championship, he could have been a part of the 2014 winning side but instead was called up to the senior England side, then in 2015 he went to the World Cup, and now in 2016 he is one of the star players in Eddie Jones’ England side. In many ways he has been leading the charge for that group of successful U20s, blazing a path as more of them now start to make their mark in the senior side.
The World Rugby U20 Championship, as it is now called, comes to Manchester in June, and will provide another chance for England’s youngsters to shine, and for supports to catch a glimpse of the future. Watson credits the U20 set up as being a crucial part in the process that led to him becoming one of England’s key performers.
“It’s crucial, obviously you’re stepping away from your club system, which you’re used to. Going into a national side and playing other national sides is huge, particularly in terms of analysis and preparation.
“At the Junior World Cup there’s only 4 days between games so you have to turn around quickly mentally and physically, and that’s where we learn the importance of doing your analysis, doing your stretching, and getting mentally ready for games. It was definitely a learning curve for me, it put me in good stead when I came into the international set up here, and it’s one that I’m very grateful for.”
Since Watson broke into the England side, several of his old U20 teammates have now started to follow, Jack Nowell being the most regular, with Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, and more recently Jack Clifford and Ollie Devoto all breaking through, while Paul Hill and Maro Itoje from the 2014 side are also making strides. Their spirit and camaraderie are likely to be a key part of Eddie Jones’ ‘new’ England, and Watson readily acknowledges what a special time it is:
“When you start playing with those guys, in the 20s the goal is for you all, or as many as possible, to play for the England side. It’s really cool having those guys here and having grown up with them and to pull on the white shirt with the likes of Nowellsy, and Jack Clifford, and those boys, it’s definitely special.”
While his club, Bath, results have not been the best of late; Watson has “full faith that the lads will turn it around sooner rather than later.” What is particularly exciting at the Rec though are the youngsters, who are coming through thick and fast. The most recent to break through being Millfield leaver Adam Hastings, who made his debut at fly half a couple of weeks ago. The youngsters have certainly captured Watson’s imagination, with a couple of young locks particularly catching the eye.
“From my point view, Tom Ellis and Charlie Ewels have looked excellent whenever they’ve been given a chance for us. Ewelsy even played at 8 against Toulouse last year. I think those two are definitely going to be special.”
Making that leap from school playing fields to the professional ranks is not easy though, so what advice would Watson give to someone breaking into those professional ranks?
“Pick the brains of the older more experienced lads as much as possible…pick up little bits of advice and little bits things that they’ve learned throughout their years of playing the game, that’s where I think you can develop faster. Ask for help, do your extras after training, be willing to work, that’s definitely what I would advise.”
Watson has certainly been doing his extras in training this week as England prepare to host Ireland at Twickenham this weekend in the RBS 6 Nations. England arrive with two wins from two, while Ireland are yet to win and are in the midst of a serious injury crisis. However they rocked England last year at the Aviva, winning 19-9 after a memorable aerial bombardment. It is a threat that Watson is keen to stifle.
“I can guarantee we’ll be completely ready for the aerial threat that they pose, they’ve got wings who likes to get up in the air, Rob Kearney at full back is good kicker of the ball, an then Murray and Sexton. So it’s going to be crucial for us to make sure we dominate that aerial space as much as possible. Then the breakdown as well, they always work very hard at the breakdown, both in attack and defence, it’s another area that we have shored up.”
With the NatWest Cup semi finals also taking place on Saturday afternoon, plenty of those at Allianz Park might miss Watson and his England colleagues take on Ireland, but there is every chance that some of those taking to the turf in North London might be joining Watson on the South-West London turf in just a few short years. After all, it was only four years ago that Watson was running out for his own school.
Anthony Watson was speaking on behalf of England Rugby and official partner NatWest, proud supporters of school rugby. As a part of the NatWest Schools Cup 2016 30 school players are being offered the chance to attend an Academy Day at England’s training base. Follow NatWest Rugby on Facebook and Twitter for the latest news.