Bath prodigy Tom Heathcote on radar as SRU casts its net

STEVEN Shingler may never pull on the navy blue jersey of Scotland but that ill-starred affair has not prevented the SRU from looking elsewhere for quality players with the proper eligibility requirements, writes Iain Morrison.

With that in mind Tom Heathcote may be the most important player you have never heard off because not only is he a classy 20-year-old stand-off for Bath but he is eligible to play for Scotland.

Even now he is scratching his chin and working out whether to jump ship. Scotland on Sunday has posed the question three times, through Bath’s media rep, and has yet to get an answer. That may have something to do with him being in the middle of the age-grade Six Nations. The Scots-born stand-off turned out for England U20 against Ireland on Friday evening and has already played against Scotland this season.

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Heathcote, pictured, came off the bench at Firhill when England U20s handed the Scottish juniors a lesson by running out 59-3 winners on the opening weekend of the championship. He only played for about ten minutes and certainly not long enough to form any sort of opinion about him as a playmaker but at Bath, in the absence of New Zealand’s injured World Cup hero Steven Donald, Heathcote has impressed those in the know despite still being an apprentice.

“Stephen’s going to have to fight his way back into that No.10 shirt,” said Brad Davis, Bath’s first team coach. “The guy who’s there at the moment [Heathcote] is going from strength to strength and learning the game. The crowd here at the Rec know their stuff and when Tommy’s on the ball they get excited about what he does for the team.

“He’s a good player. He has the skills, the passing game, the kicking game, but he’s brave too in the way he takes the line on and also in defence. But he’s got his feet on the ground and he’s a terrific guy to work with.”

Bath have wisely just signed Heathcote on a three-year deal as a full-time professional in the full knowledge that they have a good ’un in their midst.

It may be that the U20 England international goes to sleep with the strains of Highland Cathedral ringing in his ears every night but even if he prefers Edward Elgar’s greatest hits there are a couple of more prosaic reasons for looking north. The first is Owen Farrell, who looks completely comfortable in the England playmaker’s shirt and who, at the same age as Heathcote, will be around for a long time to come. The second reason is George Ford who, coincidentally, Heathcote was up against last weekend when Bath lost to Leicester in the semi-final of the LV= Cup.

Ford is the son of former England defence coach Mike Ford and he is little short of a stand-off phenomenon. He played for England U18s at the age of 15. He played for England U20s at the age of 17 and he won the IRB’s Young Player of the Year award after guiding England to the final of the U20 World Championships last season where they lost to New Zealand. He also won the man of the match award in that LV= semi-final when helping Leicester overcome Bath at the Rec.

Still only 18, Ford is two years younger that Heathcote and it is a matter of when, not if, he makes his full international debut. Farrell may not inherit Saint Jonny’s crown after all.

Scotland have some options at ten and, with Matt Scott coming up fast on the rails, they will soon have some at 12 as well but one more top-class playmaker would not go amiss because Scotland would clearly benefit from the added competition.

Should Heathcote opt for Scotland the young stand-off has a shout of touring with his new colleagues this summer, where he could yet be partnered at half back by Brendan McKibbin. Scotland on Sunday featured the Scots-born Waratahs scrum-half almost exactly a year ago but that was when he was still hoping to become a Wallaby. Now, according to the Australian press, McKibbin is said to be considering a move to Europe in an effort to press his international claims with Scotland after struggling to make the breakthrough at Super 15 level. He has been back-up to Sarel Pretorius at the Waratahs, having previously spent two seasons understudying Luke Burgess.

Born in Irvine, McKibbin spent his early life in Kilmarnock before his family emigrated to Brisbane when he was three. He is slight but quick, a top-of-the-ground player, who also kicks goals from all corners of the field. Scotland has several decent number nines but there is no such thing as too much competition.