HAMISH Watson says he is not the least bit surprised by the emergence of Jamie Ritchie – his back-row partner in crime at both club and international level – as one of the most highly regarded blindside flankers currently operating in European rugby.

While Watson has been one of Scotland’s most consistent and effective performers in the openside slot for over four years now, Ritchie’s arrival as a front-line international is a relatively recent occurrence, but in the space of two short years he has gone from new kid on the block to a key member of the team’s leadership group and widely regarded as a future captain in waiting.

The pair have formed a formidable tag-team partnership, with their pace around the park, their abrasiveness in the contact area, and their relentless energy over the full 80-minutes of every match, having left a number of highly-rated opponents chasing shadows when both have been fit during the last 18 months.

Together they have been a key factor in Scotland’s resurrection from their early 2019 World Cup exit, helping transform the team from being nice to watch and nice to play against. into masters of putting their opponents off their stride.

“I’m there with Jamie at training every day and I see how hard he trains and how hard he works, so it’s not hard for me to believe how well he’s doing,” said Watson. “We see it every day, while others only see it at the weekend.

“Full credit to him – he’s playing really well at the moment and I enjoy playing with him in the back-row.

“He is a young lad, but he is one of the leaders of this team now. Who knows – he may be a future Scotland captain – he just has to keep his head down, keep working and who knows what he will achieve!”

Both players are now firmly in the frame as not only possible Lions tourists next year but genuine contenders for the Test team. Watson says he is flattered by the speculation but is not reading too much into it at this stage.

“I don’t think it brings any extra pressure,” he says. “A lot of people get spoken about for the Lions and get nowhere near it at all. I just have to keep performing for Scotland and when I go back to my club I’ll have to keep performing there as well.

“I imagine a lot will ride on what happens in the 2021 Six Nations. There is still a lot of rugby to be played and you can play yourself out of contention very quickly. All it takes is a few bad games, so let’s just see what happens.”

Before the 2021 Six Nations, there is the Nations Cup to get out the way, which kicks off for Scotland against Italy in Florence on Saturday. Having now won four games on the bounce – a run which started with an emphatic 0-17 success against Italy in Rome during the Six Nations back in February– the Scots are entitled to go into this competition in a confident frame of mind, but Watson insists that won’t give way to complacency, especially in the back-row where he is anticipating a ferocious battle.

“Jake Polledri, Sebastian Negri and Braam Steyn … they are big guys, big ball-carriers and it is one of the strongest parts of Italy’s game,” he pointed out, “It was the same when we played them in the Six Nations. We know the back-row battle is going to be key and we will be trying to keep those boys at bay because they are all top-quality players.

“Italy are one of those teams that can lose against Ireland and then come back and play some really good stuff against England. They will probably be even better this weekend and they always have a good, tough game against us. They are always really good at home and we will have to perform at our best if we want to beat them. We want to keep our winning streak going.

“We haven’t gone on many big winning streaks in the past and I think we have got a good chance to do that now because we have a tough away game followed by two at home [against France and Fiji] and our record at Murrayfield is good – and we want to top the group.”

Meanwhile, Watson dismissed speculation linking him to Racing 92.

“One of the boys mentioned it earlier and that’s the first I’ve heard of it – no, I don’t think so,” he retorted.