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'Hamish Watson is never too small': Ex-Lions skipper's ringing endorsement for the Scottish back row whose size has divided opinion

By Liam Heagney

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Ex-Lions skipper Sam Warburton has given a ringing endorsement to the chances of Scotland’s Hamish Watson making the upcoming tour to South Africa. There has been criticism of the back row, allegations that he would be too small to thrive against hulking type South African players.

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However, the 2021 Guinness Six Nations player of the tournament has been backed by Warburton ahead of the May 6 squad announcement by Warren Gatland, a coach the 2013 and 2017 Lions skipper knows all about from his time on tour and also as Wales captain.

Hamish Watson is never too small,” insisted successful Lions skipper Warburton. “Josh Navidi has his critics for Wales, Justin Tipuric has probably had them over his career. I said this on Twitter recently, power trumps size every day of the week. 

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“I played against plenty of big guys who were slugs, but it’s that repeated power is what you need and personally, Warren Gatland would have been purring watching Hamish Watson over the Six Nations. I thought he was outstanding. As things are now, he is a Test starter and I can’t wait to see how he goes in the first few warm-up games.”

Having forged a stellar career in the back row, Warburton is understandably intrigued by what will unfold on the Lions tour in South Africa, not only with Watson but with so many others. In naming the six players he feels are bankers to start a Test, Warburton chose two back rows in Taulupe Faletau and Tom Curry but his thoughts on selection beyond that are wide-ranging going on his various comments at the midweek Canterbury jersey launch.  

Asked if any Irish players had caught the eye, he said: “Josh van der Flier has been phenomenal. He has played brilliantly. I’m not much of a stats guy but he made the most metres out of any flanker in Six Nations, made the most tackles behind Justin Tipuric. Technically he is a brilliant No7, he does exactly what a No7 needs to do, but this is where it is so tricky. You have got Watson, Curry, van der Flier, Tipuric and (Josh) Navidi to fit into three and I don’t know how you are going to do that. 

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“I’d say (Tadhg) Beirne at six. Gatland would be more inclined to pick someone a bit heavier because I know he values that weight in the second row. If we played second rows on the light side he would flag it and say that is something we could target. He will be picked as a second row/back row. Talking of Test starters, he is not one of the front line starters for the second row so that is why the back row might come more into play. Players like himself, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes if he goes, they could find themselves at six. 

“It makes them safe picks to go because you need players who can jump into that back row as well and those players do that. Tadhg Beirne, for me, is nailed on to go on tour and he has got a great chance at being a Test starter and six will suit him as well.”

Warburton revisited the back row equation later when quizzed on the specific chances of Navidi, Tipuric and Faletau following their recent Guinness Six Nations title-winning exploits. “Tipuric, the hard ground will suit him. I imagine (Gregor) Townsend will be pushing for Tipuric. Gatland said the other coaches sent in their squads and I’m pretty sure Tipuric would have been in Gregor Townsend’s squad. There is not an attack coach in the world who wouldn’t want him in their team. 

“Then every defence coach would probably pick Josh Navidi because he is so good at defence and he is actually great in attack for many different reasons. It kind of goes without notice but he will secure speedy rucks. People will take that for granted but he is so good. 

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“Toby is just a shoo-in, one of the classiest players I have ever played with. I remember I said in the autumn Toby would be the Lions No8 and I got a bit of heat on Twitter but I was ‘he will turn up, I guarantee he will turn up’ and lo and behold, he turned up for the Six Nations. Anybody who writes off Toby is a fool. 

“Ask any coach, nobody tells Toby what to do. There is a lot of structure in rugby but Toby is one of those players who is just so naturally gifted they just let him fit in. He knows when to drop back, when to be front line, he just gets it and he doesn’t even know he knows it. 

“That is the strengths of the three (Wales players) but unfortunately I don’t think all three will go on tour. Tom Curry will go, possibly Sam Simmonds will go and then you have also got six covering out of Maro, Lawes and Beirne. All those players and the three Welsh boys essentially don’t fit. There is going to be some big, big omissions. 

“If (Sam) Underhill continues playing with Bath that will have an impact because England missed him and Lawes massively. You can’t overlook them because they haven’t played Six Nations because those guys can have way too much of an impact and they are two of the most physical players you could ever have. 

“The reason Lawes went on the last tour was they knew his aggressiveness would pay dividends in the wet in New Zealand and he was there in the Test squad in Wellington. Gatland likes his style and the fact he covers six as well, it makes you think that all these brilliant back rows you have got, including van der Flier, they are not all going to go and there could be a Welsh back row casualty.”

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'Hamish Watson is never too small': Ex-Lions skipper's ringing endorsement for the Scottish back row whose size has divided opinion

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