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Anthony Watson: ‘It always seems to be the players on the receiving end’

“It’s always the players,” Anthony Watson says with a weary shrug as he identifies the group which he believes shoulders the worst of English rugby’s problems. “I’m hoping that a few changes to personnel across the game might make things different going forward. But it always seems to be the players on the receiving end of bad news, especially over the last 24 months where a salary cap got enforced within two weeks with no feedback from us. Then there were the agent fees, now covered by the players, which was again enforced with no feedback from us. We weren’t informed of these decisions.”

Watson is discussing the wider issues which besiege rugby – from experienced professionals suddenly being without a contract to brain damage and enduring racism – and it feels important to see them through the prism of his personal experiences. He has played 51 times for England, including the 2019 World Cup final, as well as five Tests for the British & Irish Lions, but last season an unexpected phonecall from Stuart Hooper, Bath’s director of rugby, shocked him.

Having played for Bath since 2013, Watson intended to sign a new contract, despite the club floundering at the bottom of the Premiership. But he was told that, as Bath tried to adjust to the reduction in the Premiership’s annual salary cap from £6.4m to £5m, he was no longer part of their plans. There was no discussion as to whether he would accept a lower salary and instead it was down to him to find a new club.

We meet in Bath, on Watson’s second last day in his adopted city before he and his family move to the east Midlands as he joins Leicester, the Premiership champions. The 28-year-old back almost snorts with derision when asked if he has received any clarity from Bath as to who made the decision to cut him adrift.

Anthony Watson in action for the British & Irish Lions against South Africa at the Cape Town Stadium last year
Anthony Watson in action for the British & Irish Lions against South Africa at the Cape Town Stadium last year. Photograph: Steve Haag/PA

“Not a chance, no,” he says. “Nothing. I don’t really want to think about it anymore. It’s wasted energy. I don’t feel anything for that place any more. I’ve got friends there and a few of the staff I’m friendly with but, in terms of the actual organisation, nothing.”

His understandable bitterness towards Bath has been replaced by relish for the new season at a much more successful club. “100%,” Watson exclaims. “It was a comfortable decision to try and stay [at Bath]. My family’s here and I’ve been here nine years so I was guilty of that. But moving to Leicester is 100% better for my career. The focus on winning and the quality of players and staff makes Leicester special.”

Yet he and other England internationals are keen to highlight the struggles of less fortunate players. “A few guys have been pretty vocal about it,” Watson says. “Kyle Sinckler, Gengey [Ellis Genge] and a few others are talking out and it’s not selfishly from their perspective. They’re looking after people who as a result of the salary cap changes have basically gone from having a decent wage and job for three or four years to all of a sudden having no job.

“Things have to change because, with how hard the game is becoming, players have to be properly compensated. It also doesn’t make sense for guys to be playing more times a year for less money. We can’t take more risk for less compensation.”

Watson believes that English rugby should put the needs of its players before other economic imperatives. “Yeah, 100%, or the game in this country will collapse,” he warns. “Undoubtedly it’s not a myth that you get paid better playing abroad. But I think there’s now a willingness from other parties [in power] to understand what the players are feeling. There have been some conversations about how they can do things better. They’ve acknowledged that things weren’t done necessarily in the right way. Hopefully that will change going forward.”

He has taken a pay cut to join Leicester. “The whole market meant there was never going to be a case of finding somewhere, at least in this country, able to pay a similar wage. I had to accept that early on and then it was purely a rugby decision. But internationals and guys forced to play [club rugby] week in, week out for less money will suffer. To me, it’s a very short-term decision by the guys making these calls [on salary caps].”

The reduced cap means smaller squads and greater risk for players who appear in too many games. “Clubs have cut squads which puts more pressure on those guys who are forced to play week in out, week out. Of course I understand there’s a business element, and clubs can’t consistently go year-on-year without making money. But the players are the ones really taking the brunt of it. It’s just not fair.”

If Watson was a rugby administrator how would he redress the situation? “The clash between internationals and Premiership games doesn’t make sense. You miss a whole bunch of Premiership games if you’re an international and club players are expected to play every week. Reducing that clash would be an important factor as it puts less load on the guys who are expected to play week in, week out and it would help the internationals too. Whichever way you skin it, there needs to be less games for everyone.”

The England international rugby player Anthony Watson
Watson says a full pre-season has him feeling in fine shape. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Watson feels deeply for those former internationals, such as his old England colleague Mike Brown, who cannot find a club. Brown is 36 but he would still be an asset to most Premiership clubs. There are rumours that this could change next week but, since Newcastle released him, he has failed to secure a new contract.

“I spoke to Mike six weeks ago,” Watson says, “and the fact he hasn’t got anything is pretty mental. He’s got [72] England caps and we saw in the last 18 months how he still performs in the Premiership. It blows my mind he doesn’t have a place in any Premiership team.”

Watson’s older brother, Marcus, who played for England Sevens, was in the same predicament. “But he’s just signed with Treviso and moved there last Wednesday. I’m delighted he’s got a gig. Going through what Mike and Marcus did over the last six months can take away your love of the game.”

Despite the serious injuries Watson has suffered throughout his career, including a torn ACL which disrupted most of last season and cost him his England place, he appears rejuvenated. Eddie Jones selected him for his summer training squad, but decided he should continue his rehabilitation at home rather than tour Australia.

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“It was the best decision,” Watson says. “Having a full pre-season is one of the things you miss out on when you play year-on-year and go on summer tours. Pre-season feels rubbish to do because they’re so hard but it really helps.”

Watson shows me the technology and fitness app which has enhanced his training programme. “It’s made by Whoop and I’ve been using it two years. I started using it during lockdown and it tracks how much fitter and stronger I’ve become since missing a year of rugby. It added years onto my career because it was a whole year I didn’t get beat up.”

His laughter gives way to more sombre reflection as we discuss the recent revelation from Ryan Jones, the former Wales captain, that he has been diagnosed with early onset dementia. It is one of many examples of rugby players with severe brain trauma owing to the brutal collisions that now distort the game. “It’s not nice to read about anyone going through something like that, particularly someone who took the same risks you do. But it makes you take it 100% seriously.”

Did Watson sometimes play on after taking a bad knock to the head? “Probably. But that’s not on anyone else apart from myself. I’ve matured and realised how vital it is looking after your brain. It sounds weird but yeah, I definitely would have done stuff like that five ago. I definitely wouldn’t do it now because the risks are way too extreme.”

He admits that he has not spoken to his wife and parents about the dangers inherent in the sport but his family must be worried. “I’d imagine so. My missus doesn’t like me playing rough with anything let alone if she saw me get a concussion. It probably does worry her.”

Does Watson think about the threat of brain damage? “I do but it’s a really tough one to manage because I love what I do so much. I wouldn’t swap it for the world. So it’s just a balancing act of making sure you’re extremely sensible but not taking away your love and approach to rugby. The most important thing is that when Ryan and Carl Hayman [the former All Black diagnosed with dementia and CTE] spoke out they didn’t sugar-coat anything. Awareness is going to be the number one thing going forward.”

Awareness also underpins why it was so valuable that, in June, Luther Burrell, another former Test teammate of Watson, suggested that racism still scars English rugby. “It was particularly tough to read that Luther has been through something so dark. In certain teams pockets of racism are still there. I would say it’s died down a significant amount compared to 15 years ago but that doesn’t make it OK to occur in any shape or form.

Gloucester's Billy Twelvetrees (right) tackles Bath's Anthony Watson during the Gallagher Premiership match at the Recreation Ground, Bath in September 2020
Anthony Watson has played for Bath since 2013 but now says: ‘I don’t feel anything for that place any more.’ Photograph: David Davies/PA

“I have heard [racist] words that I would probably have laughed at. But a couple of [fellow black] players like Beno Obano and Kyle Eastmond told me: ‘You should think about how you approach those situations. It might not affect you which is great, but other people might not be able to make a joke of it.’

“That shifted my perspective because you don’t want someone to go home upset. There’s still work to do but it’s about raising awareness and people understanding that just because this is how some rugby players have talked for years doesn’t make it right. Continuing to question that old-school mentality of rugby will pay dividends.”

Watson lights up when asked if his desire to play for England in next year’s World Cup burns as fiercely as it did in 2015 and 2019. “Probably more so, having been to the final last time and losing the way we did to South Africa. I want to be in the squad and do one better [and win the World Cup].

“I was watching the women’s Euros final last weekend with my mum. The Germans were on the screen after the game and she said: ‘Oh, you know what that feels like.’ She wasn’t even taking the piss but I was like: ‘Jesus, I never want to experience that again.’ It makes you hungrier to be on the winning side in a World Cup final. It’s 100% something I want to do. My body feels great, I feel good mentally, so why not? It’s at the forefront of my mind.”

Anthony Watson is a WHOOP ambassador. Visit https://www.whoop.com/

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