SCOTLAND’S latest convert Tom Heathcote explains why he is going back to his northern roots.
Child psychologists will tell you that much of what a person becomes is formed in their first three years of life and Scottish rugby’s new arrival presented some firm evidence of that yesterday.
Tom Heathcote has been on the radar north of the border for the past few years, but he was a key player within the England age-grade set-up. Only once his commitments with England under-20s finished in the summer did Scotland head coach Andy Robinson finally move from a nudge and a wink to a firmer bid to persuade him that his dreams of playing Test rugby could be fulfilled this season if he turned back to his Scottish roots.
The 20-year-old was born in Inverness and spent the first three years of his life near Findhorn, ironically not far from where he is now likely to win his first cap on Saturday, after his father, Gareth, was posted to RAF Kinloss and where he flew Nimrod. He did not profess to have grown up a staunch Scot exiled in England, but did state that the first three years had left a strong imprint on him, that he grew up as a youngster in England supporting Scottish teams and that he was excited now at the thought of wearing the thistle.
He said: “I am very fortunate to be qualified for both countries and be in a position to be able to come and play for Scotland. The offer was not something I expected to happen so soon in my career but to have the chance to play at the highest level is what everyone wants, and it’s something I’m massively excited about.
“My parents felt quite a connection to Kinloss and Findhorn, where I lived after I was born for a few years. We travel back and still have family friends in Findhorn who we visit and, in that sense, we have always felt a big connection and celebrate Burns Night and things like that. And for me being the family member born in Scotland when I was young and growing up, I always embraced that, so to be given this opportunity and to play probably as close as I’ll be able to where I was born and where we lived is a great opportunity.”
For players such as Jim Hamilton, whose father, a former Scottish soldier, spoke often about the pride he would have in seeing his son represent Scotland, or Max Evans, who grew up with a Glaswegian grandfather taking him to rugby in the south of England but always with stories of Scotland, there was a childhood fascination with playing for Scotland.
Heathcote did not have the same push from within the family, his parents both being English and his father having a Welsh mother. So what was the pull to a decision made only two months ago, and was it a difficult one? The persuasion came from Robinson, Heathcote explained, and once he had made his mind up it was not difficult at all.
“There are a few things [reasons], but a big one was just the chance to be involved in international rugby – the autumn internationals, Six Nations and the summer tours – is a valuable experience. He [Robinson] talked in depth about the nature of the squad and how everything runs, how ambitious and hard-working the squad is, what a great group of guys it is and that it is something that you’d be lucky to be a part of.
“That was a big persuasion, knowing that I was coming into a team with a good group of guys with high ambitions, to make this team as successful as possible. To start with, I spent a lot of time thinking over it and chatting to a lot of people – my parents, friends and coaches. I wanted to make sure I gave it enough thought because, obviously, it was a big decision for me. But when I came to the decision it felt right and it actually came pretty easy. Once I decided that I was going to do it, I was very happy and didn’t want to look back, and now I’m very much looking forward to the next chapter.
“I had a bit of contact with some of the guys [England coaches] coming through the age groups and they would have liked me to stay and go that route but, at the same time, they are all very understanding and supportive of why I want to do this and the attraction it brought. Since it’s come out I’ve received only really positive support from all of them, which is great for me, and I do appreciate that they support my decision.
“I saw it as just a case of being fortunate, in a lucky position to be able to choose, and when that opportunity comes to go and play international rugby it’s something you can’t turn down.”
Heathcote is a stand-off with clear talent, a player who has pace, strength and good hands, and a successful goal-kicking return, and, having spent the past year working alongside All Black Stephen Donald, he is learning more about the art of managing a game. What excites Robinson is his ability to lead an attacking line and provide a genuine threat at stand-off, as well as bringing out more from the threequarters.
Asked what he felt he could bring to the Scotland team, Heathcote admitted he had something in common with the style favoured by Robinson.
“I want to bring part of my game but also fit into what the team wants to play, hopefully a fast, exciting brand of rugby which suits my game,” he said. “I like to get the ball in hand, get running and accelerate the line myself and bring the players outside me into the game, and hopefully I’ll be able to bring those aspects of my game to the team and try and get the guys outside me running on to the ball and playing a fast, exciting brand of rugby.”
That is a style that has been favoured by Scotland coaches going back generations. Maybe more was picked up in those first three years in this country than even neurological experts would be able to evidence.