Six Nations Rory Sutherland in right place at right time for Scotland
Three years ago Rory Sutherland was learning how to walk again, properly, after a horrific freak injury derailed his career, but he is now contemplating the prospect of a fifth cap and a first appearance for his country at BT Murrayfield.
The Edinburgh loosehead prop ended a three-and-a-half year international wilderness period at the weekend when he started in the 19-12 opening Six Nations loss to Ireland at the Aviva Stadium.
If he is handed the No 1 jersey again for the Calcutta Cup showdown with England on Saturday it would be just reward for the 27-year-old from Hawick, who has not had the smoothest of paths to the top table of Test rugby.
He left school at 15 to become an apprentice engineer and cut his teeth in the club game, primarily under the tutelage of former Scotland prop George Graham at Gala.
He earned a move to Edinburgh but injuries and sporadic game time led to an up-and-down time at the capital pro team, although he did win his first cap off the bench against Ireland, again in Dublin, during the 2016 Six Nations.
Two more came along on the Japan tour of that summer but calamity then struck in the form of an injury that would have ended the careers of those with less stoicism than the Borderer.
Those of a squeamish disposition should perhaps skip the following few paragraphs. “I had a bilateral groin reconstruction,” explained Sutherland. “Both my adductors [upper thigh muscles] came off the bone so I had to get them reattached and screwed into the bone again. I was flat on my back for three months.”
Sutherland continued: “I went on the summer tour to Japan and played two Tests, and then came back and had a little while off. It was the start of the 2016-17 season, maybe five games in, and I was just warming up and it was a freak accident.
“I had been getting problems with my groin for about a year beforehand and I went to sprint in the warm-up and one of my tendons was frayed so it snapped, and because I was sprinting it put so much stress on the other side that that came off as well.”
What followed was a slow, painful and frustrating fight to revive his shattered rugby career. “Giving it up wouldn’t have been an option,” he insisted. “I would have stopped if I had to but I would never have given up trying to get back to playing rugby. When I went through that time of my life it was very hard to wake up every day and have that, sort of, drive to want to play again. It was a lengthy old process.
“I went three months of pretty much not being able to move at all to give the operation the best chance to heal. A really long rehab period of teaching my body the mechanics of walking, running again. Doing all those things, and then a slow transition into being able to train to play again.”
He battled back to training and then earned selection by new Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill, but it quickly became clear the ordeal he had been through had taken its toll.
“The thing that knackered me the most when I came back was that through the period I was injured, the coaches had changed at Edinburgh,” said the player, who has since been awarded a new contract. “So I went from Alan Solomons to Cockers and when I came back to play I don’t think I was ready to play.
“That’s not down to them, the coaches or the strength and conditioning staff. I think taking that long out of rugby, when I came back that was Cockers’ perception of me.
“I played a couple of games and I wasn’t fit enough to play at all. So I think that maybe stuck in his mind a little bit to begin with.
“I had to go back and do a lot of work on my match fitness. I went to play for [Edinburgh] Accies, Hawick as well, just to build up that match fitness. It was just trying to drip back into the team every now and then to get the opportunity to play.
“It is your career at the end of the day, it’s your job. People tell me I’m doing what I love for a living, and I am, but you love it some days and hate it the next.”
Being told he will be part of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match will certainly go down as one of the good days, and Sutherland is relishing the chance to be part of what is always the biggest day in Scotland’s rugby calendar.
Although he does have experience of a rivalry which arguably at least equals that of the auld enemies, having crossed the fierce Hawick-Gala divide in his younger years.
“I did play for Hawick for about a year. Derek Armstrong was the coach then and when he left to go to Biggar he took a few boys with him and I was one of them. I played there for a while. I’m a Hawick traitor. I’ll never get to live it down,” said Sutherland with a smile. Asked if he gets stick in his hometown for his dalliance with Gala, who he joined for a season after leaving Biggar, Sutherland simply replied: “All the time.”
Even this season, Sutherland has not played a great deal of rugby, with Pierre Schoeman first choice in his position, but a couple of impressive displays in the away European games at Wasps and Bordeaux were enough to convince Scotland coach Gregor Townsend.
“Yes, that was the starts that I’ve had this season,” said Sutherland. “The two I’ve had decent game time so it was nice to get a little bit of time under my belt.” Asked if he was surprised to get the Scotland call, he said: “Very. Obviously a nice surprise. But the opportunities I’ve been given I feel I’ve played well.”
Three-and-a-half years on from his last international match, the prop admitted there were nerves in the build-up to the Dublin game. “There was. I’m not going to lie. I was a little bit worried that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the pace of the game,” he said. “But we’ve done a lot of work at Edinburgh as well off the field with fitness – when you’re not playing you do the little extras. That would have helped as well. I’m really happy with the way I went on Saturday.
“With Pieter de Villiers the new guy who has come in as scrum coach, we’ve been doing a lot of work the past few weeks on the scrum. Doing the simple things well.”
A special Murrayfield debut now looms and Sutherland said: “It’ll mean a lot to me. Being back and getting to play in that blue jersey again means a lot to me. When I was going through those tough times, imagining being where I am now helped to get me through.
“Having those positive thoughts of ‘well, it can happen again if I put the work in’ and take it day by day, do the gym work, do the rehab, do the coming back into rugby slowly. It’s worked, so I’m really happy to be back where I am now.”