Hamish Watson’s year has been nothing short of extraordinary.
The 30-year-old flanker started 2021 by being crowned Six Nations Player of the Championship, having been at the heart of Scotland’s historic away wins over England and France.
His consistently high standards and remarkable tackle count resulted in him earning a place in Warren Gatland’s 37-man British & Irish Lions squad, becoming Lion #847 in South Africa.
Donning the famous red jersey in the first Tour match against the Sigma Lions, Watson scored a try within seven minutes of kick-off and went on to be named Player of the Match.
Watson has continued to go from strength-to-strength post-Tour, producing another standout try-scoring display as Scotland defeated Australia in the Autumn Nations Series.
But while Watson’s rise to international stardom may have taken some by surprise, it was clear to those who watched him from an early age that he possessed the potential to go far.
His journey started in the late 1990s at Wilmslow Rugby Club, where then coach and club president Chris George recognised what a special talent he had on his hands.
“He started here in the age group below the one that I coached,” he said.
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“He was playing well and his father, who has always played rugby down here, came and asked if he can give his son a tougher test by playing at an age group above.
“Hamish came into our age group and performed very well. He wasn’t big enough to go in the forwards, he was fast and he was a very strong tackler, had a big heart.
“So we played him either at centre or on the wing. He always walked around in a Scotland shirt, I never realised that would be something for the future as well.
“He fitted in well, he was a good player and just loved his rugby. The club have loved following Hamish’s career because it’s been really good for everybody, including the kids.
“It’s a great honour being a Lions Origin Club. Hamish came to us from a young age, he was six or seven, and he actually still comes back to the club so this is his home club.”
When Watson left Terra Nova School to go to Oakham School in the East Midlands, he continued to play in Wilmslow’s juniors and colts teams whenever he was at home during school holidays.
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That only ended after Watson joined the Leicester Tigers Academy, where he played until the age of 18 before opting for Scotland and pulling on the dark blue jersey at the 2011 Junior World Championships.
Manchester-born Watson, who has grandparents from north of the border, was offered professional terms with, firstly, the Scottish 7s squad and subsequently with Edinburgh in 2014.
And even before Watson progressed through the professional ranks, he demonstrated an ability to deliver match-winning moments in high pressure situations for Wilmslow.
George added: “We played in the Cheshire Under-12s Cup Final at Caldy in 2003 and Hamish scored the winning try and then at Under-13s we went on tour to France.
“We played in a tournament and ended up drawing in the final and it came to the equivalent of a penalty shootout, a drop goal shootout, and Hamish put his hand up to take the winning kick.
“The key to his success is his determination, his unbelievable tackling ability, his heart, he never backs out of any tackles, I think he gets round the pitch and he’s got good feet.”
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Watson made five appearances – three of them starts – in all on 2021 Tour, including a cameo off the bench in the Lions’ 22-17 victory over the Springboks in the first Test.
But his most memorable moment came in the Lions’ first game in South Africa, scoring a try in the 56-14 victory over Sigma Lions – much to the delight of everyone at Wilmslow.
“It was a very special moment. The club erupted when he scored his try against the Sigma Lions and it erupted again when he was named Player of the Match as well,” George added.
“But we were also elated when he was named Six Nations Player of the Championship as well earlier in the year. He’s just had a fantastic season.”
Watson made his Scotland debut as a replacement in the 2015 Six Nations and despite some writing him off due to his size, he has become a key member of Gregor Townsend’s side since then.
And Jimmy Toole, another Wilmslow RFC coach who oversaw his early development, said he phoned Watson’s father as soon as he found out the back rower was to become a Lion.
“It means a lot to the club that we’ve got somebody who is a Lion,” he said. “We’re already very proud of him, everyone at Wilmslow is very proud of Hamish and what he’s done.”
Wilmslow RFC player Benjamin Day hopes Watson’s incredible journey from the Manchester-based club to Lion will go on to inspire the youngsters coming through the club.
“Unbelievable. To go from here to the British & Irish Lions, it’s just a shame he never got a cap for Wilmslow but maybe one day he’ll come back and do that for us,” he said.
“His shirt is up in the club house, it’s what it is all about and hopefully the kids playing here will recognise that, see his shirts and be inspired to try and emulate him.
“He’s a couple of years younger than me but because it is a proper club everyone is together, you know the kids below you that are good, you know the kids above you as well.
“I think you often try to replicate what the older kids are doing but you are fully aware of the younger lads and that was the case with Hamish Watson.”