Anthony Watson exclusive: Top players are being punished for playing for England

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Anthony Watson. - JAY WILLIAMS
Anthony Watson. - JAY WILLIAMS

Anthony Watson believes England players are being punished by clubs for their international status with reduced wages and find themselves in a “lose-lose” situation over their futures.

Watson will join Leicester Tigers this summer in a move which came only together after months of uncertainty in April, revealing that he was blindsided by Bath when the club informed him days before an expected contract extension that he would not be needed for next season.

In an extensive interview with Telegraph Sport, Watson has joined England props Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge in speaking out on the uncertain futures facing all players across the Gallagher Premiership as a result of the salary cap being reduced, with close to 100 players set to be without contracts next season. The England and British and Irish Lions international fears the best players are being unfairly treated because it is automatically expected they will feature in Eddie Jones’ squad.

“For it to be assumed you will be an international when it’s not a given - you might not even be picked [by England] for the autumn or the summer or a Six Nations - and then have to deal with potentially taking a reduced wage because of it, it seems like you are being punished for being good, in a sense, which is tough for a player to deal with,” Watson said, having learned from Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper in December that his planned contract extension would not be triggered.

“I understand from a business perspective but it doesn’t make it any easier from a players perspective.”

Even with his status as an England and Lions international, Watson has stressed that he is one of the lucky players to have a contract for next season, with the salary cap having shrunk from £6.4m to £5m.

“I want to highlight that there are people in rugby, very good players, without a job next year,” Watson added. “Mike Brown, Rob Miller at Wasps, my brother [Marcus Watson]. For those boys there needs to be more aftercare, looking after what they are doing next. The [salary cap] rule was only implemented 18 months ago - it’s difficult for people to have to think about transitioning into life after rugby because of a quick rule change.”

Watson also noted that despite players being set to play on reduced salaries the number of fixtures next season will remain the same, with each club playing at least 24 regular season Premiership games and six European fixtures in 2022/23 before potential knockout matches at club level, plus internationals.

“With everything going on with even more awareness around concussions and serious injuries... you can’t be expected to be paid less and risk your body for the same amount of games. We’re losing and losing in this situation.”

The phone call that ended my Bath career

Shortly after getting off a plane in the United States late last year, Watson was called by Bath's director of rugby, Hooper. Watson was just days away from a unilateral contract extension being triggered for him to stay at Bath for the 2022/23 season, the club he joined as a teenager from London Irish and where he became an England and British and Irish Lions international with 22 tries in 58 Tests.

Anthony Watson. - REUTERS
Anthony Watson. - REUTERS

Discussions with Bath up to that point had been positive and the signs were that the club wanted the partnership to continue. Watson, at the time recovering from a ruptured ACL suffered playing against Saracens in October, had no desire to leave The Rec, and was hungrier than ever to bring silverware to the long-suffering Bath fans. Then, his phone rang.

“They said they were not going to be able to offer anything to keep me,” Watson recalls as the reason behind Hooper's phone call. “There seemed to be a lot of mixed messages as to why the decision was made, who made it etc. I ended up with a lot of resentment, if I’m honest, towards a lot of the leadership in the organisation. I just felt that after all my time at the club, things should have been handled better.”

Anthony Watson of Bath receives attention to an injury on his left leg during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bath Rugby and Saracens at The Recreation Ground on October 17, 2021 in Bath, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Anthony Watson of Bath receives attention to an injury on his left leg during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bath Rugby and Saracens at The Recreation Ground on October 17, 2021 in Bath, England. - GETTY IMAGES

Why players need to speak out

Watson makes clear that there are now no sour grapes. This is not a sob story, he stresses, given there are out-of-contract players across the Gallagher Premiership this summer including his own brother, Marcus, in far worse situations than himself and that Watson himself has now agreed a move to Leicester Tigers. But the nature of how his exit from Bath was handled still stings.

Watson was never offered the chance to take a pay cut by Bath, and remains unaware whether it was Hooper or Ed Griffiths, the Bath chairman who left the club under a cloud last month, who made the decision not to renew his deal. Frustrations were also felt around how marquee player management and regulation misunderstandings were apparently influencing decisions around whether players could be kept on at clubs and how.

“I was hearing that some clubs were telling players versions of the regulations that contradicted others,” Watson adds. “Which is pretty wild to me when such big decisions were being made.”

While officially clubs can only have one marquee player for the 2022/23 season, marquee players signed on existing contracts can still retain marquee status, with Bristol Bears keeping both Semi Radradra and Charles Piutau on their books an example.

“Loyalty in sport is dying,” Watson admits. “It’s important, in my opinion, for people to understand how what people term 'business decisions' impact the lives of professional athletes. There are more players than ever, some with families, who don’t have a job next month because of the pressure to make the reduced salary cap work.”

Watson, unexpectedly forced to consider his next move, stresses that “clubs were not queuing up” when it came to finding a new home. There were talks with three Premiership clubs, but as late as March with clubs finalising their summer recruitment and budgets shrinking, Watson was still unsure where he would end up. “Others [players] are going through much worse, but it wasn’t an easy situation,” he adds, with the fact that he might be away for a number of games on international duty clearly a factor.

Looking back on his ACL rupture in October, in his second game back following the 2021 Lions tour of South Africa, Watson reflects: “I guess you could look back at it and say I shouldn’t have rushed back, but my body did feel good. I wanted to give Bath some value for money, I guess, because I had missed a chunk of games. It’s not an easy situation to be in as a player. You want to satisfy all parties and getting the balance right can often be really tough.”

Bath's Anthony Watson (left) leaves the field injured during the Gallagher Premiership match at the Recreation Ground, Bath. - PA
Bath's Anthony Watson (left) leaves the field injured during the Gallagher Premiership match at the Recreation Ground, Bath. - PA

'I want Bath fans to know I didn't jump ship'

Despite the way things ended, leaving Bath remains difficult, particularly parting with close friends Beno Obano and Jonathan Joseph and a head coach in Neal Hatley who Watson has worked with since the start of his career. Watson also stresses his gratitude to the number of “very good people” behind the scenes from the kit man to the commercial team, who he will miss. Winning something together and for the fans was a priority heading into a season which turned into a disaster for Bath, finishing bottom of the table. A calf injury also denied Watson the chance to say farewell to supporters in the final two games of the season.

On joining Leicester, Watson is not too proud to admit that he has had to accept a drop in salary, but at this stage of his career, now 28 and entering his prime, salary comes second to title-winning opportunities. And even if his time with Bath has ended abruptly, opting to rehab his ACL injury away from the club since December and denied a farewell appearance through injury, joining a resurgent Leicester seems the best possible outcome.

“If I’m honest, the money was important to me in my early 20s for sure. Now the focus is on how long I have left in the Premiership, trying to win something. I want to finish my career having won the Premiership, and if I don’t do that I’ll be very upset.

“I’ve been very fortunate to land in the best place for me. With everything Leicester have going on, not just winning but also wanting to be a better player, it’s the best place for me.”

Anthony Watson. - GETTY IMAGES
Anthony Watson. - GETTY IMAGES

Others have not been so lucky, with Watson along with Sinckler and Genge recently banging the drum for those players without contracts next season, with Watson also addressing the fact that squads are getting smaller and being paid less to play the same amount of matches.

“I understand it’s a business and clubs can’t carry on losing money the way they were [after Covid], but the players continue to put their bodies on the line week in and week out. Our job role and the demands on us haven't changed, we’re just expected to play for less money and accept that it's inevitable.

“I just can’t see how someone like Mike Brown doesn’t fit into a Premiership team. I think something will have to change so that we can keep good players in the game when they still have plenty to offer. That will be a discussion for people in the right roles but if they want to speak to players about it, which I definitely think they should, then I would be happy to. I know plenty of others would too. Players need more of a voice in the game and at the top table. It happens with the most successful leagues across the world and rugby should be no different.”

Watson recently spent time rehabbing with England but has not gone on tour to Australia, instead benefiting from a full pre-season with new Premiership champions Leicester. After a tricky few months, his focus is on the future.

“The last thing I want is for this to come across as sour grapes. It’s important for me to make clear, especially to the Bath fans, that this wasn't a case of me jumping ship, that’s not how I roll at all. I will miss the club and many of the people connected to it, but it’s not going to be burning me up. When July 1 comes, I’m a Leicester player.” And Bath's loss will undoubtedly be Leicester's gain.

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