ROSS THOMPSON shrugs off being voted McCrea Financial Services Warrior of the Month for March with the same nonchalance as he exhibited back in January when taking responsibility for the chief game manager role in a team which had been hopelessly out of sorts during the first half of this Covid-disrupted 2020-21 season, after which he immediately injected some much-needed composure where there had previously been rabbit-in-the-headlights panic in the No 10 slot.
“Either they like what they see or it’s just my family spamming the vote,” he quips, in reference to the Warrior of the Month accolade.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing so far this season – it’s been a crazy start to the year – it’s only since the start of 2021 that I’ve played any games for Glasgow – but it’s been pretty cool,” he adds, in reference to the overall experience of nine matches in total in a Warriors shirt so far, which includes four wins from the five games he has started (note: the team has only won six games in total all season).
Perhaps his most telling contribution, however, was in the game Warriors lost 40-21 against Leinster in Dublin at the end of February, when Thompson came on at half-time and added calmness and a dusting of sparkle, helping his side rally from the set-back of Adam Hastings’ red carding just before the break to give the PRO14s superpower a real run for their money.
It wasn’t enough to secure a shock win at the RDS, and let’s not pretend that either Thompson or Warriors are anywhere near the finished article yet – but the portents are encouraging for both after some fairly challenging moments in the not-so-distant past.
“It was definitely tough,” says Thompson, who turned 22 last Saturday (10th April), when asked to reflect on his mindset last summer as he contemplated two years as a stage three (i.e. full-time) player in the Glasgow academy set-up without so much as a sniff at game time for the Warriors.
The previous season had, at least, offered some meaningful action with Ayrshire Bulls in Super6, but with a half-completed law degree to think about, he admits that re-committing to the academy for 2020-21 was not a straightforward call.
“Lockdown gave me good time to reflect, and my thinking was that I’m in Glasgow for university and I have the chance to do another year of academy, so I’m really glad I took that decision,” he explains.
“There was a point where I was swaying about it, but I’m thrilled that I made the decision. And it was a case of: ‘If I’m going to do this year, I want to put 100% into it.’ I didn’t want to have any regrets at the end of it and feel like I’d wasted a year. It seems to have worked out all right, hopefully.”
A smooth transition
The shift under Scottish Rugby’s new(ish) Director of Performance Rugby Jim Mallinder to have stage three academy players more deeply embedded in the pro teams has certainly helped take the sting out of emerging talent getting no competitive game-time during the last 13 months, and smoothed the way for the likes of Thompson, Rufus McLean and Ollie Smith to integrate fairly seamlessly into the Warriors team during the last three months.
“My first year, we were based at Broadwood and Ravenscraig. A couple of the older boys, like Stafford McDowall and Robbie Smith, did pre-season with the Warriors, but we would only occasionally be in at Scotstoun,” recalls Thompson.
“Last year we did pre-season then trained pretty much full-time with Glasgow. It was the World Cup year when a lot of the internationals were away, and then again for Six Nations, so we got a lot of time in and around the Glasgow environment. And this year has been pretty much the same.
“[So] I’ve been lucky to have been in and around the team for the last few years. I’ve had a feel for the environment and what’s expected of everyone when they’re playing.
“My involvement in the team and matchday preparations has obviously moved on a lot from a couple of years ago when I was just in the academy or popped in for a couple of sessions while I was at uni, and it’s going well.
“It has been tough [since breaking into the team] and I’ve had to do a lot of learning off the pitch to try and make sure I’m ready for the games, but I’ve been helped a lot by the more experienced stand-offs like Pete Horne, Ian Keatley and Adam, and also the coaches.”
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Thompson cuts a friendly, laid-back character off the field, but that masks an inner steel which has been evident on the pitch throughout his climb up the ranks, from Scotland Under-16s, to Under-18s, to Under-20s, and from Stewart’s Melville College in Edinburgh, to Glasgow Hawks, to Ayrshire Bulls, and now to Glasgow Warriors. He’s always been a good player at whatever level he’s played at – but his most impressive achievement has been the calm authority he has consistently exhibited when stepping up a grade.
Back in September 2017, an 18-year-old Thompson was man-of-the-match as Glasgow Hawks toppled previous season’s Premiership champions Ayr on their own patch.
“I thought he was excellent today,” said Fin Gillies, the victorious head coach and a former Warriors player, after the game. “He made a couple of really smart kicks which as an 18-year-old you don’t expect him to do. He’s come here straight out of school and now he’s bossing his team to victory over the Premiership champions. He’s technically very good and I know the Glasgow academy will have an eye on him already.”
Prophetic words, which were echoed by Calum Forrester, the beaten head coach who is also a former Warriors player. “The young boy at ten showed some really good game management in the second half which allowed them to keep in front,” he conceded.
A combination of technique, intelligence, confidence and that all important ability to make good decisions under pressure combine to give Thompson time on the ball – which is an invaluable commodity for any player, and especially for a stand-off. He won’t necessarily have you gasping in shock and awe as Finn Russell has a habit of doing with his ‘Hail Mary’ passes and his ‘What The Hell Are You Doing?’ grubber kicks, but there is a fluidity to the new kid on the block’s game which is both effective and easy on the eye.
“The [Glasgow Warriors] coaches have been really good,” says Thompson. “They put it all into our hands and if we make a decision that we feel is the right one, they’ll back us. They don’t want to put too much pressure on us by making it too scripted or structured. If we see space, we know we can attack.
“Otherwise, we can look to build a kick, or kick off the back of slowed down momentum, but if we do get the chance to run it and it comes off, we can play on top of the other team which is what we want to do rather than kicking the ball away.”
A sporting pedigree
You wonder how much of all this springs from the Thompson family’s sporting pedigree. Late grandfather Eric is a member of Scottish Cricket’s Hall of Fame, and also excelled at rugby and squash. Uncle Graeme played club rugby for Watsonians and West of Scotland before playing for Scotland at rugby league then moving into sport administration to serve as performance director of British Water Polo and British Curling as well as a board member of International Rugby League since 2011 (he is currently deputy chair). Cousin Kirsty Gilmour is a Commonwealth Games and European silver medallist in badminton, who trains during non-Covid times across the forecourt of the same Scotstoun campus as Thompson is now making his name.
“During school holidays we would go with my granny to her Monday morning tennis, her Tuesday morning badminton, then climb a hill with her walking group on Wednesday and so on,” recalls Thompson, who was also a handy footballer in his youth, playing for Spartans up to under-16 level before rugby took precedence. “We’d have short tennis tournaments in our back garden every summer, so it definitely runs through the family. It gets pretty competitive but brings out the best in us.”
Thompson recently graduated from the academy to sign his first senior professional deal for next season, and is intent on combining that with the final year of his law degree at Glasgow University.
“It is a four-year course, but it will take me five years to complete,” he explains. “I did first year full-time, then years two and three over three years, then I’ll do fourth year next year. You’ve got to do fourth year full-time, and if I was to try to take a year out and go back to it, I think it would be a bit of a pain to start again and get motivated.
“It feels like it has dragged on a lot, but I’m still chipping away at it. The uni have been very good at helping me out. I’ll hopefully be able to start my dissertation after I’ve finished the exams I have coming up, then try to get the bulk of that done over the summer.”
It’s going to be a gruelling schedule, and while Hastings is off to Gloucester in the summer, the arrival of Scotland international Duncan Weir as well as Argentinean cap Domingo Miotti means that competition for game time at No 10 will be ferocious – but that’s clearly the way the Thompson likes it.
“I guess I enjoy the pressure of when your backs are against the wall and people are doubting you. I definitely do get nervous before games but I think that is probably a good thing. I love getting chucked in [at the deep end] in anything really. Like balancing rugby and university, people question whether or not you can do it, but I enjoy proving people wrong and showing that it is possible.”
In the meantime, Scotland have a yet to be confirmed summer schedule to get through, which is likely to be geared towards blooding a few of the next generation, but Thompson isn’t biting on that one.
“100 percent I would love to play for Scotland one day, but right now I just need to focus on doing what I’m doing at Glasgow,” he retorts. “Hopefully, we can put some good performances together as a team and individuals in this Rainbow Cup [which kicks off away to Benetton next Saturday afternoon], so I don’t think I’ll get too far ahead of myself.”
- McCrea Financial Services sponsor Glasgow Warriors and provide a wide range of financial advisory services including mortgage, pension and retirement planning advice. See www.mccreafs.co.uk to contact them for more information.