Tom Heathcote’s recruitment into the Scotland squad ahead of Saturday’s final autumn Test against Tonga in Aberdeen may have been a bolt from the blue for many casual observers.
But the 20-year-old Scots-born stand-off has been on coach Andy Robinson’s radar since at least this time last year, when he kicked six penalties for Bath against Glasgow Warriors in the Heineken Cup at Firhill. Heathcote’s Scottish credentials were flagged up in March and Bath could not give a firm answer when asked by journalists whether the player was considering switching his international allegiance.
Given that he was not linked with a Scotland call-up in the intervening nine months, it can be assumed it was not a decision which the player has taken lightly – although Scottish Rugby Union sources indicated that he would have been named in the squad before the start of the autumn series had he not still been recovering from a knee injury picked up during Bath’s pre-season.
Now that he proven his form and fitness with three run-outs, playing a couple of games for the second string Bath United team and then grabbing 21 points on his return to the top side in their 35-16 victory over Newport Dragons in the LV= Cup a fortnight ago, Robinson has clearly decided that the time is right to lay his cards on the table so far as his latest capture is concerned.
With England coach Stuart Lancaster having stated just four months ago that Heathcote was “on the cusp” of the England elite playing squad, the youngster can be forgiven for treading cautiously on a decision which could have momentous consequences for what he ultimately achieves in his career.
Conversely, such an open declaration of admiration by Lancaster may well compel Robinson to act more decisively when it comes to introducing Heathcote to international rugby.
The Scotland coach will be eager to have his man capped and therefore tied to Scotland as soon as possible.
With fellow stand-off Ruaridh Jackson being released back to Glasgow Warriors this week, it would be astonishing of Heathcote does not get some game time against Tonga at Pittodrie this weekend.
But the alacrity with which Heathcote has been brought into the national fold is certain to cause consternation in some quarters.
Craig Chalmers, who played stand-off for Scotland 60 times between 1989 and 1999 and, as coach at Melrose was closely involved in Scott Wight’s progression through the ranks to the point where many believe he should now be regarded as a genuine cap contender, says he is uncomfortable with Heathcote’s call-up.
Chalmers said: “I have nothing against this guy playing for Scotland. He was born here so he is qualified – it is as simple as that – and good luck to him.
“But, if I was Scott Wight, who has been playing really well for Glasgow recently and helped them get to third in the league, I would be pretty disappointed and frustrated when I heard about this,” added Chalmers. “I hoped that they would be brave and give Scott a chance against Tonga, so I am disappointed for him because I’m not sure what he has to do to get a chance when somebody else who has hardly played is ahead of him.
“It is a tough decision for Andy Robinson and the coaching team because they are obviously keen to have him tied-in, but my personal view is that, if he wants to play for Scotland, then he should be ready to wait for it.”
“Is this guy good enough to play for Scotland? Not at the moment. I would have thought the Scotland A game against the English Saxons in February would be a good opportunity for him but the Scottish selectots are presumably worried that he might change his mind and end up playing for the Saxons against us. I’m just not sure that is a good enough reason to give a guy a cap.”
Unlike the Steven Shingler debacle, when the player turned out to be tied to Wales after being picked by Scotland, least there is no grey area over Heathcote’s qualification.
He was born in Inverness in 1992 while his father was stationed with the RAF at Kinloss and moved to England when he was three years old when his Dad was transferred to Salisbury.
Although he played international age-grade rugby south of the Border, IRB rules are clear that a player does not become committed to a country until he has played for either one of the two most senior national fifteen-a-side teams or the senior sevens team of that nation.