“It’s always the players,” Anthony Watson says with a weary shrug as he identifies the group he believes bear the brunt of English rugby’s problems. “Hopefully a few changes in the squad throughout the game can make all the difference going forward. But there always seem to be players who get the bad news, especially in the last 24 months when the salary cap was imposed for two weeks without any feedback from us. Then there were the agent fees paid by the players, which were reintroduced without any feedback from us. We were not informed about these decisions.”
Watson discusses the wider issues that beset rugby – from experienced professionals suddenly being out of contract to brain damage and enduring racism – and feels it’s important to see them through the lens of personal experiences. He has played 51 times for England, including the 2019 World Cup final, as well as five tests for the British and Irish Lions, but was shocked by an unexpected call from Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper last season.
Watson, who has played for Bath since 2013, was keen to sign a new contract despite the club languishing at the bottom of the Premier League. But he has been told that he is no longer part of their plans as Bath try to adapt to a reduction in the Premier League’s annual salary cap from £6.4m to £5m. There was no discussion as to whether he would accept a lower salary and instead it was up to him to find a new club.
We meet Watson in Bath on his second last day in his adopted city before he and his family move to the East Midlands as he joins Premier League champions Leicester. The 28-year-old defender almost snorts derisively when asked if he has received any clarification from Bath on who made the decision to send him off.
“Not a chance, no,” he says. “Nothing. I don’t want to think about it anymore. It wastes energy. I don’t feel anything for that place anymore. I have friends there and a few staff that I’m friends with, but nothing in terms of actual organization.”
Understandable bitterness towards Bat was replaced with relish for a new season at a more successful club. “100%,” Watson exclaims. “It was a comfortable decision to try and stay [at Bath]. My family is here and I’ve been here for nine years, so I was guilty. But moving to Leicester is 100% better for my career. Focus on winning, quality of players and staff make Leicester special.”
However, he and other England internationals are keen to highlight the struggles of less fortunate players. “A couple of guys were pretty vocal about it,” Watson says. “Kyle Sinckler, Gengey [Ellis Genge] and a few others are talking and it’s not selfish from their point of view. They look at people who suddenly went from a decent wage and job to unemployment in three to four years as a result of the salary cap change.
“Things have to change because the harder the game gets, the players need to be properly compensated. It also doesn’t make sense for guys to play more per year for less money. We cannot risk more for less compensation.”
Watson believes that English rugby must put the needs of its players ahead of other economic imperatives. “Yes, 100%, or the game will collapse in this country,” he warns. “It’s certainly not a myth that you get paid better playing abroad. But I think that now there is a desire from other parties as well [in power] to understand what the players feel. There was some talk about how they could improve the business. They admitted that things were not necessarily done correctly. I hope this will change in the future.”
He took a pay cut to join Leicester. “The whole market meant there was never going to be a place that could pay a similar wage, at least in this country. I had to take it early on and then it was purely a rugby decision. But international players and children were forced to play [club rugby] week in, week out for less money. To me it’s a very short-term decision by the guys making the calls [on salary caps].”
A reduced cap means smaller squads and greater risk for players who appear in multiple games. “Clubs have cut their squads which puts more pressure on the lads who have to play week in week out. Of course I understand there is a business element here and clubs cannot go consistently year after year without making money. But the players bear the brunt of it. It’s just not fair.”
If Watson was a rugby manager, how would he fix the situation? “There is no sense in the conflict between international players and Premier League games. If you are an international player and club players are expected to play every week, you miss all the Premier League games. Reducing that collision would be an important factor as it would put less of a burden on the guys who are expected to play week in, week out and help the internationals as well. No matter how you cover it, there should be fewer games for everyone.”
Watson feels deeply for former internationals such as his old England colleague Mike Brown who failed to find a club. Brown is 36 years old but will still be an asset for most Premier League clubs. There are rumors that could change next week, but Newcastle have failed to secure a new deal since letting him go.
“I talked to Mike six weeks ago,” Watson said, “and it’s pretty mental that he doesn’t have anything. He has  The England international is performing and we’ve seen how he’s still performing in the Premier League over the last 18 months. He has no place in any Premier League team.
Watson’s older brother, Marcus, who plays for England Sevens, was in the same predicament. “But he signed a new contract with Treviso and moved there last Wednesday. I’m glad he has a gig. To go through what Mike and Marcus have done in the last six months can take away your love for the game.”
Despite serious injuries throughout Watson’s career, including a torn ACL that ruled out much of last season and cost him his place in England, he looks rejuvenated. Eddie Jones selected him for the summer training squad but decided to continue his rehabilitation at home rather than tour Australia.
“It was the best decision,” says Watson. “One of the things you miss when you play year after year and go on summer tours is a full pre-season. It’s rubbish to do it in pre-season because they’re so tough, but it really helps.”
Watson shows me the technology and fitness software that enhances his training program. “It’s made by Whoop and I’ve been using it for two years. I started using it during the lockout and it keeps track of how fit and strong I am after missing a year of rugby. It added years to my career because it was a year where I wasn’t beaten.
His laugh reflects a darker place as he discusses former Wales captain Ryan Jones’ recent revelation that he has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. This is one of many examples of rugby players who have suffered severe brain injuries from brutal collisions that are now distorting the game. “It’s not nice to read about anyone going through something like this, especially someone taking the same risks as you. But it makes you take it 100% seriously.”
Was Watson sometimes playing after taking a bad hit to the head? “Maybe. But it’s not about anyone but me. I have matured and realized how important it is to look after your brain. It sounds weird, but yes, I would definitely do things like that five years ago. I wouldn’t do it now because the risks are too extreme.”
He admits he hasn’t talked to his wife and parents about the dangers inherent in the sport, but his family should be worried. “I would imagine so. The lady doesn’t like me playing roughshod over anything if she sees that I’m concussed. This probably worries him.”
Does Watson think about the danger of brain damage? “I do, but it’s very difficult to manage because I love what I do. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. So it’s just a balancing act to make sure you’re extremely sensitive, but it doesn’t take away your love and approach to rugby. Most importantly, Ryan and Carl Hayman [the former All Black diagnosed with dementia and CTE] they talked, they didn’t add sugar to anything. Awareness will be the number one thing going forward.”
The awareness is also why it’s so valuable, with another former Test teammate of Watson’s, Luther Burrell, suggesting in June that racism still wounds English rugby. “It was especially difficult to read that Luther had experienced something so dark. There are still pockets of racism in some teams. I’d say it’s down significantly from 15 years ago, but that doesn’t make it right that it’s happening in any way shape or form.
“I have heard [racist] words I would probably laugh at. But a few [fellow black] Players like Beno Obano and Kyle Eastmond have said to me: ‘You have to think about how you approach these situations. It might not affect you, which is great, but other people won’t be able to joke about it.’
“It changed my perspective because you don’t want someone to go home upset. There’s still work to be done, but it’s about raising awareness and people understanding that just because some rugby players have been talking like this for years doesn’t make it right. Continuing to question whether rugby’s old-school mentality will pay dividends.
Watson lights up when asked if his desire to play for England at next year’s World Cup burns as fiercely as it did in 2015 and 2019. “Probably the last time we made it to the finals and lost our way to South Africa. I want to be in the team and do better [and win the World Cup].
“Last weekend I was watching the women’s Euro final with my mother. The German was on the screen after the game and he said, “Oh, you know how that feels.” He wouldn’t even take pee, but I was like, “Jesus, I don’t want to go through that again.” Being on the winning side in the World Cup final gives you even more motivation. It’s something I want to do 100%. My body feels great, I feel good mentally, why not? It is in the forefront of my mind.”
Anthony Watson is a WHOOP ambassador. Visit https://www.whoop.com/