Four years on from his first Tour with The British & Irish Lions, Anthony Watson not only has an improved understanding of rugby – he also has a better understanding of himself.
Watson was just 23 when he first donned the famous red jersey in New Zealand, with the England star going on to start all three Tests on the right wing in the drawn series.
Since then, the 27-year-old Bath Rugby winger has overcome multiple injury setbacks, helped his country reach the 2019 Rugby World Cup final and become a father for the first time.
Furlong relishing the challenge of the opening Test
And when asked how he has changed from the man who toured in 2017, Watson admitted his added experience has allowed him to enjoy his second bite at the Lions’ apple more.
“My understanding of rugby has probably improved. Without going into too much detail, my perception and appreciation of the sport has definitely increased,” he said.
“I love what I do, I wouldn’t change it for the world and I’ve enjoyed this trip a lot. I’ve enjoyed being around the boys on this trip a lot more than the last one because I’m older.
“It’s just been great being around the guys and just enjoying it. In terms of what’s changed, apart from feeling like I understand the game better, I feel like all round I’ve improved.
“I’ve just got to keep on that same trajectory I guess and keep going. I’ve taken it all in a bit more. I’ve probably socialised a bit more with people that I otherwise wouldn’t have.
“Particularly because of what happened after the trip last time in terms of going to Vegas with Tadhg [Furlong] and a few other guys that I would have never imagined going on a trip with.
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“That opened my eyes to the relationships you can build on tours like this with people who you didn’t think you would, and I think that’s allowed me to grow closer to the group.”
Watson has been one of England’s most in-form players in the past 18 months, playing a key role in Eddie Jones’ side during their journey to the World Cup final against South Africa.
He scored a try in the quarter-final victory over Australia while he also finished the most recent Six Nations campaign with four tries despite England coming up short in defending their title.
And having faced the Springboks in that 2019 final, Watson is all too aware of the dangers the world champions will pose when the Lions lock horns with them on Saturday.
“I think the kicking game, importance of the kicking and aerial game, that was huge in that World Cup final and we came up second best to them – they dominated us in that area,” he said.
“They got great momentum and gained great field position from that area. That kind of gave them the leg up they needed. And similar to the South Africa A game as well, the start was huge.
“We didn’t put ourselves in good positions in either of those two games and therefore found ourselves trying to claw our way back into the game which is more difficult.
“It’s important to get off to a good start against these guys. We showed in the South Africa A game that if you get off to a bad start it’s very difficult to come back.”
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Watson came off the bench against Japan in The Vodafone 1888 Cup match in Edinburgh but had to wait until the second game against Cell C Sharks for his first run out of the 2021 Tour.
He also started the 17-13 defeat to a strong South Africa A a few days later, having scored a brace against the Sharks to lay down his marker for a place in the Test squad.
The battle for the back three places is one of the most competitive there is, with Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Duhan van der Merwe, Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams all impressing.
But as the intensity picks up for the start of the Test series, Watson believes the talent at Warren Gatland’s disposal is only a blessing – and whoever is selected will have everyone’s support.
“There’s a different aura around the place when it’s Test week, when everyone’s trying to put their best foot forward in training and stuff like that,” Watson added.
“When you pick the quality of players that were picked, competition is always going to be tough. With Liam [Williams] and Hoggy [Stuart Hogg] at the back, they are both unbelievable players.
“They are probably up there with the best in the world in their positions and the same with the wings when you have Duhan [van der Merwe], Josh [Adams] and Zammo [Louis Rees-Zammit].
“All of them have got different skill sets but are all at the top of their game. Whichever way it goes, the guys who aren’t playing will be supporting the guys who are playing.
“They will be trying to prepare them as best they can but in terms of the group itself, the back three is a very tight group and we all get along really well and try to help each other.”