Grant Gilchrist has backed Edinburgh team-mate Hamish Watson to remind everyone why he was selected for British and Irish Lions duty just over two years ago as the experienced back-rower prepares for his first involvement of the World Cup by starting for Scotland against Romania in Lille this weekend.
The 31-year-old established himself as a regular in the number seven jersey after making his debut in 2015 but injuries allied to increased competition, particularly from the burgeoning Glasgow flanker Rory Darge, have led to him losing his status as a first-pick this year.
After failing to make the 23-man squad for the opening Pool B fixtures against South Africa and Tonga, Watson will get a chance to ease some of his frustration by playing from the start in Saturday’s must-win match with tournament minnows Romania.
Gilchrist – who has been handed the captaincy this weekend – has sympathy with his friend and long-time club-mate but has no doubt he will respond strongly on the occasion of his 59th cap.
“It’s tough,” he said when asked about Watson’s fall from prominence. “Obviously he’s a really good mate of mine and a world-class player but most of us have been there through our careers.
“I’ve been there a number of times. It makes you better as a player. You just have to embrace it, and Hamish has. I’m sure you’ll see the best version of Hamish Watson on Saturday and that’s because of the competition.
“We love that attitude that when someone comes along and plays really well you have to see that as a positive because it makes you have to look for different ways in your game to improve.
“Any time that’s happened to me in my career, it’s not nice and you get frustrated – we’re all human, we’re not perfect – but once that does sink in, you can really use it to drive you and look at your game and look for ways to compete.
“We’re all competitive, we all want to play, so it can have a massive impact on you. I’m sure that’ll be the same with Hamish and he’ll go really well on Saturday.”
Asked if he still sees enough in Watson to believe he can perform at the level that got him into the Lions squad in 2021, Gilchrist said: “Definitely. I see it day in, day out, and I’ve seen it with Hamish throughout my whole career.
“The competition he has with Dargey is only going to make him a better player.”
Gilchrist will captain Scotland for the first time at a World Cup as he takes over the role from regular skipper Jamie Ritchie, who is out due to concussion but would probably have been rested this weekend in any case.
“It’s a huge honour,” said the 33-year-old lock, who is competing at his third World Cup. “Every time I get the chance to pull on the jersey it means so much to me and I’ve been lucky enough to captain my country a few times, but to do it at a World Cup is extra special.
“Like all the guys playing this weekend, I’m really excited for the game and to try and get our best performance on the field.”
Gilchrist – usually a vice-captain – insisted his approach will not change significantly this week.
“I wouldn’t be over-bearing, taking on more this week than I would normally contribute,” he said. “Maybe just having that overall role in pulling guys together and making sure you bring other guys in the way Jamie does by bringing guys like me or Finn (Russell) in or whoever else is contributing (in a leadership capacity).
“But I’d like to think that regardless of the captaincy or not, I can bring leadership and experience to any team I’m part of and I’m not particularly precious about the title.
“As much as it’s a huge honour, I’d like to think I’d contribute the same regardless.”
Gilchrist knows there is a potentially huge showdown with Ireland awaiting his side in Paris next weekend, but he is focused on taking care of Romania first, with a bonus-point win imperative.
“This weekend is vital,” he said. “That’s the only thing we can control at the moment.
“Without five points this weekend, you can’t even talk about Ireland the following weekend.
“That’s the challenge for us as players. Looking at the performance, we want to set a higher benchmark than we did against Tonga.
“We want a better performance so that can really launch us into next week.”
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