Bath star Anthony Watson insists he has put thoughts of travelling to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions next year to the back of his mind following three months out injured.
The winger has been consigned to the opposite side of the touchline he is so used to hugging for England and Bath, watching from the stands as his international teammates completed a perfect year by winning four of four autumn internationals, while his club have moved to within four points of Premiership leaders Saracens.
Close friend Jonathan Joseph and New Zealand’s Julian Savea are the only players to have registered more international tries than Watson since he scored his first of 12 in last year’s Six Nations, yet the 22-year-old is not banking on such a record to earn him a spot amongst Warren Gatland’s Lions tourists in summer 2017.
“I haven’t played a game of rugby in almost three months. There would be no benefit whatsoever in me thinking about the Lions tour right now,” Watson told City A.M.
“I can’t even be putting myself in that frame of mind. I’ve just got to concentrate on getting back fit, and then playing for Bath.
“To warrant a place in the England squad you’ve got to be playing for your club and if I can do that I can push on to hopefully then start thinking about the Lions.
“I don’t think having dreams is necessarily a bad thing but when you’re thinking every day ‘I need to do this to get on the Lions tour’, that’s when you know you’re messed up.”
Watson, who is targeting a new year return from a broken jaw that has kept him out since the first week of October, already has experience of recovery and renewal to draw upon when looking to quickly recapture his form.
In what was just his second campaign as a full international last season, Watson endured the ignominy of England’s early World Cup exit at home and then joined the rarefied ranks of those who have won a Six Nations Grand Slam.
Meanwhile Bath struggled to repeat the feats that saw them reach the 2015 Premiership final and finished closer to relegated London Irish than champions Saracens.
“It was a season full of ups and downs,” says Watson. “A lot of downs with Bath and obviously the World Cup, but then a lot of ups as well with England winning the Grand Slam and then the three-series whitewash in Australia, which not many people can say they’ve done.
“Obviously the stuff at Bath was not great. Those are the people you spend every day with, those are the people you put in the hard graft with to be competing in May for the Premiership trophy, so to be so far off was obviously a huge disappointment for us.”
Former director of rugby Mike Ford was relieved of his duties following Bath’s ninth placed finish last season and replaced by New Zealander Todd Blackadder.
The impact has been immediate and Bath have re-emerged as serious title contenders this season, credentials underlined in a 14-11 win over Saracens earlier this month.
Watson says Blackadder and his team have “single-handedly helped develop quite a few players already from where they were last season” while he and his fellow backs “feel like we’ve come on leaps and bounds in terms of our skills.”
“I think all across the board we’ve developed as individuals and therefore as a team,” he says. “Collectively, we’ve just grown tighter as a group through the adversity we had last year and through grafting.”
Strong on-pitch performances should help Bath’s off-field plans for growth, which include expanding the capacity of their home stadium The Rec and the staging of an annual regular season home game at Twickenham — dubbed “The Clash” — starting with Leicester Tigers on 8 April next year.
“I think we’re always trying to innovate on the field and when your owner and your entire staff are also trying to innovate on the same page it definitely helps matters,” says Watson, who returned to his former school, St George’s College in Weybridge, to put their under-12 side through their paces last week.
“It makes us all strive to want to be the best in whatever we do. It’s cool to be a part of that and it’s definitely cool to be part of The Clash game.
“For the club itself to be the first non-London-based team to play a game at Twickenham — it’s huge.
“For the fans, I think there’s a lot of stuff going on pre- and post-game so it could be a hugely entertaining day for the entire family which is massively beneficial. And then for the players, playing at Twickenham in an iconic game like Bath v Leicester, it speaks for itself.
“From the top down, being a part of this whole process is huge for us.”
See Bath Rugby face their fiercest rivals Leicester Tigers in The Clash at Twickenham on 8 April 2017. For tickets and further information visitwww.bathrugby.com/theclash