This was Anthony Watson’s first outing in an England shirt for almost 17 months after a year of injury hell that left him at the lowest point of his career to date.
The 25-year-old has had to watch his England team-mates build toward the World Cup, as Eddie Jones tinkered with his line-ups, all the while wrestling with the prospect that once a regular on the team sheet, he may not be going to Japan.
But as he starred in a 33-19 warm-up win against Warren Gatland’s Wales yesterday, 24 hours before Jones is set to announce his final 31-man squad for the World Cup today, Watson showed that he may have returned to his peak at exactly the right moment.
It is expected that the Bath back will be among the players heading to the World Cup on 8 September, despite having now only played four games since returning form his lengthy absence.
Watson’s initial injury, a torn left Achilles tendon suffered against Ireland in March 2018, required a second operation last summer, before his comeback was delayed further by a thigh injury that meant he did not play competitively until the end of April this year.
He featured at full-back for 73 minutes as Bath lost to Sale Sharks, before playing in subsequent matches against Wasps and Leicester Tigers in May.
But as the season drew to a close, so did his chance to get back to his best and prove his worth to the England set-up. Thankfully for Watson, Jones is a fan.
Keeping in touch
The head coach has kept one of his prize assets in the loop, bringing Watson along to a Six Nations training camp earlier this year to talk with defence coach Jon Mitchell about the back three’s new responsibilities, and sending him off for a week of isolated conditioning training in July to accelerate his preparation.
That approach suggested he has never been far from the head coach’s thoughts.
His selection for England’s preliminary World Cup squad in July went against the grain, as Jones tended to prefer form over experience.
Not in Watson’s case, however. The versatile back, who prior to his injury was a mainstay of the England side, had proven himself almost indispensable to Jones, scoring 15 tries in 33 Test matches since his debut in 2014.
At 6ft 2ins and 15 stone, his athleticism, speed and agility make him formidable anywhere across the back three. And when selecting a World Cup squad, versatility is key.
The same applies for the likes of Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly, the latter of which Jones has used at full-back in the year-and-a-half since Watson’s absence.
Whether he will stick with Daly, who has faced questions about his ability under the high ball, or return to his previously preferred option in Watson, remains unclear. Just the way Jones would want it.
One thing that is transparent, however, is that Watson’s return looks likely to spell the end of Mike Brown’s time with the squad. And a lack of versatility to play more than one role across the back line could also see the likes of Jonathan Joseph, Ben Te’o and Danny Cipriani among the high-profile casualties today, depending on how many backs are cut.
The omens are certainly in Watson’s favour when Jones makes his announcement, and if he is indeed back to, or nearing his best, it would be inconceivable for Jones to leave him out.