Being selected by the Lions for the first time is a step into the unknown for players in the professional era who socialise with opponents after matches considerably less than their amateur predecessors. When the Bath and England wing Anthony Watson arrived at the Lions training camp in the Vale of Glamorgan last weekend there were, aside from his club and international colleagues, faces he knew but not their owners.
By the end of the week that had changed. The bonding process started on the first night when the 14 players in attendance were asked to come up with four songs, one for each of the home unions, that would be rehearsed before the squad left for New Zealand on 29 May and sung during their time there when they arrive in towns and cities and are greeted by locals. “Bonding is a huge part of being a Lion,” says Watson.
“I had not met a few of the boys before and it is important to step out of your comfort zone and get to know people you might not necessarily gravitate towards. It has been easy to get on with all the boys who are here and I am sure it will be the same when the rest of the 41 turn up. Everyone has bought into training and the activities we have had.”
Especially the singing, with choir practice a feature of the evenings, as it will be in Dublin this week when more players join up. “I have an awful voice but the choir is pretty good,” says Watson. “The boys are getting to grips with the songs: some are tricky, others a bit easier.” Wales’s choice of tune is one of the tricky ones as the lyrics are in Welsh. “At the start it did not go as smoothly as we would have liked; then everyone let inhibitions go to one side and we ended up sounding pretty decent.”
The Lions will need to be in tune in New Zealand, a country where they have only once won a series, in 1971, and where they have achieved a mere six victories in 38 Tests. Watson was there with England in 2014, playing for the midweek side against the Crusaders, along with his fellow Lion rookie Kyle Sinckler, a replacement prop that evening, and scoring one of their six tries.
“I remember a horse charging on before the game and it was an awesome atmosphere,” says the 23-year-old. “You knew you were in a rugby country when you turned on the television and there was a schoolboy game on.
“In some areas, people were cheering for us and in others they were telling us how much we were going to get battered by. You have to be prepared for both, I guess, but that stuff does not bother me. A Lions tour marks the pinnacle as a player and you have to embrace the challenge, playing to the best of your ability when you are given a shot. We know how demanding it is going to be, in the warm-up matches as well as the Tests, and we have had a few tough training sessions this week to get us into shape.”
Watson is used to physically and mentally punishing workouts under the England head coach, Eddie Jones, and last week was his first experience of Warren Gatland, who led the Lions to victory in Australia in 2013. “Tuesday was a pretty gruelling session, in the top five hardest I have ever done,” says Watson. “Everyone is here to embrace those opportunities which take you to where you want to reach and we all bought into it, from altitude bikes early in the morning to units and a lot of running-based stuff. It is early days but Warren is different from Eddie: he analyses a lot and takes stuff in, giving you good feedback.”
Watson was included in the squad despite injuries limiting him to two appearances for England this season, both at the end of the Six Nations when he came off the bench to score a try against Scotland and then started against Ireland in Dublin. “I missed a lot of game time and whether that would affect my Lions chances came into my mind a little bit, but first I wanted to get back playing for England,” he says. “If I had not managed that, I do not think there is much chance that I would have been picked. I was delighted to be selected for a side that is steeped in history. It means a lot to me and my family.”
Watson’s room-mate in Wales was the Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg, a tourist in 2013. “I was really excited at the prospect of meeting new people,” says the England wing who has scored 13 tries in 26 Tests. “Getting to know them is a special experience. It is weird but there is a dynamic in rugby where people are different but similar at the same time. The banter was flying around from the first minute and it is awesome to be a part of this.
“All the backs and the forwards have been around the computers trying to pick up the plays as fast as possible and everyone has bought into the Lions ethos. Stuart was a good room-mate, even if he did snore a bit. I asked him about the fines four years ago as it was what I was most worried about; I am just going to have to be whiter than white. We spoke mostly about this year: there is a lot to be learned from 2013 but this will be entirely different. The tour will be about implementing our tactics: we know they are good but we will try to dominate them.”
Watson’s director of rugby at Bath is an All Black, Todd Blackadder. “When I was named in the squad, he said he was really happy for me but would not be cheering me on.
“Having been there before, I know what to expect, even if it will be hyped up to another level. We want to be able to perform under any circumstances. Whatever they throw at us, we will be ready.”