Tom Heathcoate on his Scotland squad experience

ALTON Towers has just unveiled the largest rollercoaster in the world but it pales beside the emotional highs and lows that assaulted Tom Heathcote last November.
Tom Heathcote came on a substitute in the autumn Test loss to Tonga at Pittodrie and missed his only kick at goal. Picture: Ian RutherfordTom Heathcote came on a substitute in the autumn Test loss to Tonga at Pittodrie and missed his only kick at goal. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Tom Heathcote came on a substitute in the autumn Test loss to Tonga at Pittodrie and missed his only kick at goal. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The young Inverness-born and English-raised stand-off took his first tentative steps in Test-match rugby, a day he will remember for the rest of his life, only to find himself in the first Scotland side ever to lose to Tonga, a result he will remember for the rest of his life.

It was Andy Warhol who talked about everyone’s “15 minutes of fame” and that was almost exactly the time that Heathcote got to prove himself in Aberdeen. He did almost nothing of note that day, except fluff a pot at goal. Andy Robinson was largely responsible for persuading the Bath No.10 to switch his allegiance from England to Scotland and the former Bath coach then took the defeat as his cue to exit the stage. It must have been a day of wildly conflicting emotions for his young protégé?

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“It was a difficult time for me and the rest of the squad after that game,” Heathcote concedes. “It was a proud day for me but I was pretty disappointed with the result. No one knew what would happen with Johnno [Scott Johnson] and I personally didn’t know if I would still be involved in the squad.

“Robbo [Andy Robinson] was obviously a big part of bringing me into the squad in the first place and giving me the opportunity to play international rugby, for which I was incredibly grateful. But it was a difficult time after he left.”

Heathcote was included in the wider training squad for the Six Nations but, due to a lack of game time with Bath, was overlooked throughout the tournament in favour of Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson. The result was a lot of fruitless travelling back and forth between Bath and Edinburgh without anything very much to show for it except air miles.

Now the 21-year-old has been named in the Scotland squad which heads to South Africa for a three-Test tour within a four-team tournament including the hosts, Italy and Samoa.

As with the British and Irish Lions, Scotland will travel with just two specialist stand-offs in Heathcote and Jackson (Weir has a broken leg). But, unlike the Lions, Scotland have a “second-five” in Peter Horne, an inside centre who can stand in at stand-off. Heathcote should add to his solitary and undistinguished cap, although he has already exorcised some of the demons during his second outing in Scotland’s colours.

He was central to Scotland A recording their first-ever win on English soil against the Saxons (England A) earlier this season. The stand-off kicked two penalties and a conversion to see Scotland home 13-9 against several England players that he knew far better than his own team-mates, with one rival in particular having cast a long shadow over Heathcote’s career from an early age.

George Ford is one year younger than his friend and fellow stand-off but he has dogged Heathcote, following him around like Greyfriars Bobby. The pair have been fighting over the same number ten shirt ever since they were teenagers, competing for the England under-16, under-18 and under-20 spots. More often than not, Ford has won the selectors’ favour. Heathcote came off the bench to replace him at Firhill in 2012 as England’s under-20s thumped their Scottish rivals in the shadow Six Nations. One year later, Ford steered Leicester Tigers to a narrow one-point win over Bath and Heathcote in the LV Cup semi-final.

That Scotland A win over the Saxons was possibly the only time that Heathcote has emerged from an arm wrestle with his rival sporting a broad grin and it came in timely fashion. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities at Leicester Tigers, where he plays second fiddle to Toby Young, Ford has recently signed for the Bath club that has nurtured Heathcote from an early age.

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This is what is called “parking the tanks” and, once more, the two playmakers will be direct rivals for just the one shirt.

“That was quite a big game,” says Heathcote, with what can only be described as typically English understatement, of the Saxons win. “We had quite a few guys who maybe expected to be in the senior squad so we felt we had something to prove. It was nice to get the better of Ford in that Saxons game.

“He [Ford] got the nod at under-16. I missed most of the under-18 seasons with injury and he played at under-20 before he was rested for the World Championships that summer and I got my chance. He generally got the nod.

“I’ve known about him joining Bath for quite a while now but I’ve talked to the [Bath] coaches and they have assured me that there will be a fair competition for places and that whoever is training and playing better will get the starting shirt.

“It’s good to have the confidence of the coaches that you can put up a real fight for the shirt and, hopefully, we will both spur each other on to improve and become better players. As a club we have competition in every position and that will propel Bath back up where we want to be at the top of the Premiership and competing in Europe.”

Heathcote has only just signed a two-year contract at the Rec and he makes it clear that he will honour that agreement. “I am a Bath boy. I have always supported this club. I came through the academy here.”

Any entreaties that Edinburgh Rugby might have made to sign him (Heathcote mentions brief conversations in passing) will have to wait until 2015, which is a shame. He would be the perfect signing for the capital club as they look to rebuild.

Scotland, too, may be renovating a midfield that is still the biggest area of concern for interim coach and director of rugby Scott Johnson. In the absence of centres Nick De Luca and Max Evans, who are both rested this summer, there is the possibility that Peter Horne will slot in at 12, where he was originally picked for the opening match of the Six Nations before breaking his thumb, and Matt Scott is asked to shuffle wider to the vacant No.13 shirt. Stand-off looks a straight battle between Heathcote and Jackson.

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Scotland now boast a back three that frightens the living daylights out of all right-thinking opponents. If they can find a midfield trio with the creative nous to deliver the ball to the dangermen with a little time and space, the fortunes of the national team will look a lot rosier.

Heathcote reveals that he has an older sister who is studying medicine in Cardiff.

“She got all the brains and I got...”, he tails off, not sure what to claim for himself.

Scotland fans will hope he got what it takes.