France v England: Kallum Watkins is ready to make mark on big stage
The 25-year-old centre has won every available club honour – twice – for Leeds Rhinos, but admits he has yet to fully make his mark on the international scene.
A member of Leeds’s senior squad since 2008, Watkins has been a regular in Test rugby for four years. He is in line to earn his 16th cap this evening when Wayne Bennett takes charge of England for the first time, against France in Avignon.
With Australia and the Kiwis to come over the next few weeks – along with Four Nations minnows Scotland – Watkins reckons it is time to finally bring his club form to the international party.
“This is an opportunity for me,” said Watkins, who was Leeds’s player of the year when they won the treble of Challenge Cup, Super League leaders’ shield and Grand Final in 2015.
“Internationally, I’ve not really performed at my best. I have had opportunities and I’ve not really taken them. You have got to do that against the big teams and the top players. I want to hopefully perform on those days and I have definitely got a point to prove.”
With his power, pace and footwork close to the line, Watkins has long been regarded as one of England’s truly world-class players.
Reflecting on his mixed fortunes at Test level since his debut in 2012, Watkins conceded: “There’s been huge pressure on me since I started a young age.
“Those experiences against top players are what you learn from.
“I have been playing internationally for a few years now, so I have got that experience of big games and top players.
“It is an opportunity now for me to do the best I can and, if I do that, I have got a really good team around me.
“It is going to be a big series and I just need to perform. That’s the pressure for me and all the players. It is all down to what you do in preparation.”
Eyebrows were raised when Bennett included three Leeds players in his 24-man squad and only one from Hull, who won the Challenge Cup this year and were third in Super League.
Leeds finished ninth at the end of the regular season and spent the final third of the campaign fighting for their top-flight lives in the Qualifiers, against the likes of Batley Bulldogs and Featherstone Rovers.
But after losing all but three of their opening 19 competitive fixtures, they won 11 of the final 13. Watkins’s form was central to that strong finish and he is confident he is going into the autumn internationals in good shape.
“The form I’ve come up with over the last couple of months will help me,” he said.
“It has given me chance to get into the squad and hopefully play. It has been a tough year for Leeds, a difficult season, but we did well to get out of the Qualifiers.
“We respected the teams we played and we feel we progressed. It has been a learning curve for me and everyone at the club.”
That learning process has continued under Bennett. Watkins believes the Australian guru could be the man to transform England from also-rans to winners on the biggest stage.
Said the Leeds three-quarter: “He’s an imposing character, but easy to get on with. You can talk to him.
“He wants the best out of everyone and doing extras is really important for him. He is a massive help in getting us to perform on the field.
“He is there to motivate us and push us, but it is up to us as a team and a group. We have got to be at our best, but he believes when we are at our best we can beat anyone.”
That is a view shared by Watkins, who rates the current squad as highly as any he has played with. There could be as many as six debutants today and he observed: “When I first started a lot of players were coming to the back end of their career.
“A lot of young players have come in and also players have gone to the NRL (Australian competition) and done very well.
“They have given us a huge boost in terms of experience, because they are playing against the best Aussies and Kiwis every week.”