Hutchinson’s on a meteoric trajectory as a stunning six months in England’s top flight sees him looking to secure a place on Gregor Townsend’s plane to Japan, writes Duncan Smith
Fine margins is an oft-used cliché in elite sport and, aged just 23, it’s one Northampton centre Rory Hutchinson doesn’t need to be told about.
As one of the new boys in the Scotland squad aiming for a place at this year’s World Cup, and chatting as the Algarve sun beats down at their recent Portugal training camp, it’s easy to get the sense that these young men are living the life of Riley. Until Hutchinson starkly points out that just six months ago “I was fighting for my job”.
Being a professional sportsman can open a limitless door to perks and opportunity but it can be a double-edged sword, with hard work and no little luck always required to make the most of natural talent.
Hutchinson ended this season mixing it with the likes of Danny Cipriani at the Rugby Players Association awards ceremony after being nominated as England’s young player of the year, gaining similar recognition from the Gallaghers Premiership.
It capped a whirlwind second half of the season for the young Cambridge-born Scot after a posterior cruciate ligament injury became the latest setback to stall a promising fledgling career, following back problems that had limited him to a handful of first-team appearances for Northampton in the previous two campaigns.
“I didn’t have the best start to the season getting injured, coming back before Christmas. I was fighting for a job really,” said Hutchinson, who is now part of Townsend’s 44-man extended Scotland World Cup training squad, and was named English Premiership player of the month in February.
“I wasn’t thinking about the kind of things that ended up happening at the start of the year because I didn’t think it was possible. It’s been an amazing six or seven months and it was great to be nominated for those awards but the main thing is it’s unbelievable to be here in a World Cup training squad.
“Injuries… well that’s just the life of a rugby player. You can’t complain too much.”
Still capable of turning his hand to stand-off, where he began his youth career, Hutchinson relishes that crucial midfield axis area on a rugby pitch at 10, 12, 13 where the knife edge of success and failure is ever present. Something national coach Gregor Townsend has ingrained in his rugby soul too.
Things move fast in sport and, while Hutchinson’s first goal is to pick up a first senior cap when the warm-up games kick off in the middle of next month, it has to be said that the race for centre spots in Townsend’s final 31 looks an open field.
The triumvirate of Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett and Matt Scott are all out of the picture. Sam Johnson has emerged from nowhere to post a superb Six Nations, while Saracens’ Duncan Taylor is back but hasn’t played in over a year. Huw Jones has dropped way off the heights of his 2018 Calcutta Cup heroics and his season with Glasgow petered out.
Along with Nick Grigg and the similarly versatile Pete Horne, Hutchinson must be sensing an opportunity.
Former England internationalist turned media pundit Ugo Monye is a prominent backer of the Northampton man.
“I would take him to the World Cup for Scotland. I think he’s class,” said the former British and Irish Lions wing in April.
“Their [Scotland’s] biggest weakness has always been defence. Rory Hutchinson’s got a good defence, but he can do everything that the other 13s who are available to Gregor Townsend can do in attack.”
Those solid defensive qualities are part of what caught so many eyes in the last few months of the season, although Hutchinson admits he is having to adapt to a more pressing rush defence with Scotland than the deeper-lying system at Franklin’s Gardens.
“It’s different but I’m trying to learn as fast as I can because we want to be as one as a system and a team,” he said. “It’s nice to get different ideas from different coaches, it’s great for your rugby development.”
Hutchinson is eager to express how much he owes to Scotland in terms of that development.
“I found the Scottish Exiles online and with my family connections –my grandparents are Scottish, from Bellshill, on my mother’s side,” he explained – “that got me into the Scotland Under-18 set-up and took me through to Under-20s.
“I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t that chance I got through the Exiles. They’ve been very supportive. It’s taken a while at Northampton coming through the academy to get a chance playing for the first team so that chance to play in Under-20 World Cups and Six Nations has been so influential on how my career has progressed. I’m so grateful and really want to give something back to Scotland.”
He continued: “Gregor phoned me earlier in the year and said he was keeping an eye on me, was impressed and told me to keep it up and gave me a few pointers on where I might need to improve. I took that constructive criticism on board.”
Hutchinson wasn’t considered for this year’s Six Nations but admits watching that epic Calcutta Cup clash at Twickenham added even more extra motivation for him to graduate to full senior honours.
“There were no mixed emotions from me. I’m Scottish,” said the boy from Cambridge. “What a game, though, you couldn’t make it up. From where it was at half-time it was just wow.
“That’s the kind of game that makes you want to play rugby at the highest level. It was incredible.”
No stranger to a dark blue jersey, Hutchinson is second only to Jamie Farndale in appearances for Scotland Under-20s, making the squad for the junior World Cups in New Zealand 2014, Italy 2015 and England in 2016, although that last one in Manchester ended in another blow for the then primarily stand-off when an ankle injury wrecked his tournament.
“I was lucky, not many get to play in three Under-20 World Cups,” he said.
“And a lot of the guys from my 20s days are here in the squad now. Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings, Zander Fagerson, Darcy Graham, Scott Cummings, George Horne, the list goes on. It’s great we’ve all been on this journey together.
“It’s quite nice to have the skills of a fly half. Adam goes back and forth as well and he ended up taking over at stand-off with the 20s and that’s gone well for him and the move to centre has gone well for me. You’re involved in the thick of things, attacking and making the big tackles. I love playing there.”
A stellar six months has taken Hutchinson to the brink of that plane to Japan but, referring back, it also did keep him in a job. He earned a one-year extension to his contract at Northampton, but is open to a move to Scotland after that.
“Yes definitely. Edinburgh are on the up and Glasgow are right up at the top of the game so whatever is best for my future in the game I’d be open to,” he said. “But right now I’m focused on this World Cup period, really trying to make that final squad and then it will be looking to have as good a season with Northampton as possible. We want to be up there competing for trophies. You have Duncan Taylor and Sean Maitland in the squad here and they are loving life at the moment with all these trophies Saracens are winning and that’s where we want to be at with Northampton.”
Where he wants to be at come September, though, is Japan.
“I think it would just be the cherry on top to what’s been an up and down few years. It’s everyone’s dream,” said Hutchinson. “There’s still a lot of work to do to get there because there are some world-class centres here. I think that’s what Gregor wants, everyone competing for it.”