Even with five minutes to go in a game that Ireland had dominated, Anthony Watson was convinced that England would find a way to eke out a win in Dublin as they had in their previous 18 matches.
All they needed was one mistake, one misplaced kick to pounce. This is where they had been against Wales when Elliot Daly struck. But there would prove to be no further opportunities after Peter O’Mahony snaffled Jamie George’s throw to the front of the line-out. Final score: Ireland 13 England 9.
For the first time since losing to Australia on October 3, 2015, Watson had to adjust to the novel sensation of an international defeat. The surreal element was heightened by the awarding of the Six Nations trophy; the outward displays of celebration jarring with the knowledge that the historic prospect of back-to-back Grand Slams and a 19th consecutive victory had passed England by.
“It was a strange sensation,” Watson said. “After the game, trying to celebrate, having lost the game, is bittersweet. Straight after the final whistle, you have to do your best to realise that we have won two Six Nations back to back.
“I think, from a team perspective, we wanted to finish with the Grand Slam and make history which would have been great. I still thought in the 75th minute that we were going to win the game. It is that collective belief that we have developed within the squad from the hard work we put on the training pitch and what we do off the training pitch. We know that we can rely upon each other and that everyone will put in everything they can to get the win. I felt in those last 10 minutes we were going to grow stronger and push them to the edge but we didn’t have the opportunities to do that.”
Watson’s frustration was compounded by his lack of individual involvement. According to the post-match statistics, Watson touched the ball just once, although that does not count another occasion in which he knocked on.
“From a personal point of view I was not best pleased,” Watson said. “Defensively I was happy with how I played but not going forward as a back three player priding myself on trying to make things happen in attack. I only touched the ball once or twice, which was not ideal, but in those situations you need to try to influence the game in any way possible. Looking back at it, I would l have liked to have got off my wing more. I just have to learn from it. The rest of the boys will do that as well. It was a great collective lesson.”
Alongside Jonathan Joseph and George Ford, Watson, at full-back, is straight back in the saddle for Sunday’s trip to Saracens where they will face last week’s team-mates Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola. It was the combination of Ford, Farrell and Joseph that created Watson’s only try of the tournament, a masterpiece of precision and pace against Scotland.
The 23 year-old is about to break down its execution when Joseph walks into the room. Shooting a glance to his long-term sparring partner, Watson says: “I ran a support line and thankfully he passed to me once which was very nice of him.”
In two weeks, Watson returns to Twickenham for “The Clash” which pits Bath against historic rivals Leicester. Part of the proceeds from the match will go towards the Help For Heroes which provides support to veterans who have sustained injuries and illnesses in service.
In 2011, Watson made his first appearance at Twickenham as a 17 year-old in a special Help for Heroes match and the charity has since forged strong links with Bath. Injured players frequently rehab at the nearby Tedworth House, a Help for Heroes recovery centre, while the presence of Semesa Rokoduguni, a serving solider, in the squad is a pertinent reminder of the glibness of applying military analogies in rugby.
“Putting your body on the line is very different to putting your life on the line,” Watson said. “That’s why I have so much respect for guys like Roko to be so humble and so easy to get on with. That’s a real testament to his character and I guess to the army as well for how he has developed and come through that system. You forget he is a serving solider until he starts talking about driving a tank. It is mad when you see pictures of him in full army gear.”
See Bath Rugby face their fiercest rivals Leicester Tigers in The Clash at Twickenham on Saturday 8th April. For tickets and further information visit www.bathrugby.com/ theclash