Loosehead Rory Sutherland reveals the painful hidden toll behind a career that has taken him from Hawick to Edinburgh and Scotland honours – and a possible Lions tour
Rory Sutherland – the secret and sacrifice behind his rise to the top
On his days off, Rory Sutherland sometimes goes coarse fishing at Hawick with Edinburgh team-mate David Cherry. They’ll put out a dead weight and a float, pull up a chair and while away a few gloriously tranquil hours. “Where we go to fish is very picturesque, it’s beautiful. We just sit in the peace and quiet all day. Get away from the world,” says Sutherland.
As he waits for the pike to bite, the 28-year-old prop may reflect on the volatility of a rugby career that had him hooked from the age of seven but which also sent him to the murky depths of despair. Where once he was a fish out of water, now he is a prize catch; a first pick for Scotland in 2020 and named in a notional Lions XV by no less than Sir Ian McGeechan.
He is engaging company. Many of the questions directed his way are met with a chuckle and the line, ‘There’s a bit of a story behind that’. Only when asked about ‘his injury’ does he baulk. “I don’t like to talk about it because I feel I’m past that now,” he responds – before giving us chapter and verse on it anyway because he can’t help himself.
The injury occurred in 2016 but the origins go back two years earlier, when Sutherland was still in Edinburgh’s academy.
“It was quite soon into professional rugby that I started to get problems with my groin,” the loosehead explains. “That was clearly a load thing through training. It was just the sheer change. As a club player, you’re never doing weights and rugby in the same day, so you need to let your body adapt over time.
“That pre-season (2014) two of the (loosehead) props, Alasdair Dickinson and Wicus Blaauw, went down injured, so I knew I was going to get an opportunity. I played a few games and went well. And it was after those few games that I started to get trouble with my groin.”
Instead of flagging up the issue, Sutherland kept schtum. He didn’t tell the coaches, the S&C guys or his team-mates. He didn’t even tell his girlfriend, Tammy. And he maintained that stance for month after tortuous month.
“If I had said, ‘I’m getting a bit sore here’, I’d have been pulled out and missed a few sessions. But I didn’t, I just battled through it. If I knew what I know now I would never have changed a thing. Rugby’s a dog-eat-dog world; one day rooster, the next day feather duster. So when the sun shines, you’ve got to make hay.
“I knew something was wrong but at the start it was manageable, it was something I’d get sometimes in the gym or in training or in a game. I didn’t want to say anything in case I was pulled out. I’d just broken onto the scene, I was still making impressions and I wanted those impressions to be good ones. I didn’t want them to think I was someone who didn’t want to train. So when I got my opportunities I had to take them.
“When I got my first caps for Scotland (2016) it was at its worst. When I got selected, I had a million emotions going through my brain: excitement, fear, worry, anxiety. ‘Am I going to be able to play to the best of my ability or is my groin going to stop me?’
“You’re almost trying to convince yourself that something isn’t wrong. I didn’t want to talk about it, not even with Tammy. I’d mention here and there that my groin was sore or that the inside of my leg hurts a bit today. But I wasn’t giving much away. And the same with my parents and my friends, everyone in my life. No one knew what I was going through because I tried to drag it out for as long as I could.”
Inevitably, his precarious footing on the tightrope of fortune couldn’t last. In the autumn of 2016, Edinburgh were playing Harlequins and during the warm-up he went to sprint off the line. “I felt this huge bang between my legs, like a shotgun going off. I was absolutely devastated but there was a shimmer of relief as well. That was it, I had come to the end of the struggle. I had to get the scans and have the operation and get it right.”
Sutherland’s injury, requiring a bilateral adductor reconstruction, was so severe that his career looked done. But he dug deeper than ever before, enduring the indignity of being bed-bound for a month and house-bound for another two. Initially, Tammy would start the day by dealing with the couple’s two boys, Mason and Hamish. Then she would help Rory get out of bed to go to the toilet and wash and get dressed.
Sutherland’s gratitude to Tammy is clear as he discusses this trying time and he was as proud as punch when, in August, he finally married the love of his life after the wedding had been postponed four times because of the pandemic. They had a small ceremony at Tammy’s father’s house in Hawick.
Did he doubt that he would ever return to the field?
“I doubted every day. I would go through it a hundred times a day. I’d think about taking the field again and get a rush of excitement and happiness, and then two seconds later I’d be thinking about walking into the doctor’s clinic and they’re saying, ‘Sorry, you’re not going to play rugby again.’ Five minutes after that I’d be thinking about playing rugby again.
“That was how every day went for me – massive, massive ups and downs. Happiness. Sadness. Depression. Anxiety. It was a really tough time in my life.”
He was assisted hugely by former team-mate Ben Atiga, who he bumped into at Murrayfield shortly after his first check-up. Atiga runs the SRU’s mental health programme Rugby for Life, and made numerous visits to Sutherland’s home in the small Borders town of Lauder.
Atiga prompted Sutherland to start reading as a means of distraction and offered tips to help him sleep. He got him to set goals, including what he’d like to do should rugby no longer be an option. Sutherland is a qualified electrical mechanical engineer and quite fancies working on wind turbines or on the rigs off shore once he hangs up his boots.
When he had first played for Scotland, Sutherland was hammered for being overweight, they wanted him to ‘lean up’ a little bit. So during his rehab, along with relearning how to walk, the player decided to change his diet.
“Everyone that plays rugby is only human. Everyone wants to indulge themselves and have that happiness of eating a crappy meal because they know how that feels. But rugby is a team sport and it’s about how every individual conducts themselves every day. What you put in your body is a massive part of that.
“One of my goals was getting into better shape, eating right. I became obsessed with it. I was eating the right things every day and every meal was a task completed, an achievement. Eating right when you want to eat all the crap is still one of the hardest things I do in life. But it’s making that change from average player; they said if you want to take your game to the next level this is what you need to do and I did.”
He hasn’t completely eradicated his fondness for ice cream, chewy sweets and, his go-to cheat meal, meat-feast pizza with pineapple and mayonnaise. But the discipline is there now and there is evident satisfaction as he describes what’s going into the chicken wraps he has planned for tea later that day.
No such considerations existed when he was growing up in Hawick, playing for the high school on Saturdays and for Hawick Albion the next day. His parents met in the mills. Dad Steven, a centre for Hawick, later joined the police; his mum is now a nurse. They go to all of Rory’s matches, regulations permitting.
“I’ll never take the support I get from my family for granted, it’s amazing. A lot of players in Scotland don’t have family (doing that) and it makes me appreciate it more when you know you have yours at the games watching.
“My papa (granddad) used to be a selector for professional teams in football. From that he started to scout for rugby players for the Borders clubs. He is not very mobile now. Since I made my breakthrough to international rugby he has only been able to make it to one game.
“My granny has passed, bless her soul, she was another of my biggest supporters. Their house was in Wilton Dean, at the top of the hill from where the rugby pitch was. Every Friday night I used to stay over before walking down to the pitch the next morning.”
A flanker in his youth, Sutherland only made the switch to prop at 18. Hawick didn’t have a technical scrum coach so he had stints at Biggar and Gala, where he started to master the trade under former Scotland prop George Graham. And there was another passion too.
“I competed in motocross and in my younger years missed some (rugby) games on a Sunday because that’s when race meetings were. One year I finished third in the Scottish & English Championships. But Mum and Dad didn’t have the money for me to pursue motocross as a career, it was costing them a fortune.
“We were turning up to meetings with an old van and a trailer and one bike. And you’ve got guys turning up in big fancy motorhomes with three bikes and a whole entourage, so we realised we were out of our depth. Rugby was the sensible option.”
His life has seldom followed a conventional path. Despite starting all four of Scotland’s Six Nations matches this year – the remaining match against Wales is on 31 October – he played second fiddle behind Pierre Schoeman last season at Edinburgh. Starts against Wasps and Bordeaux around Christmas helped his match fitness but he admits he was “apprehensive” when making the transition to Test rugby at the start of this year.
“I feel my scrummaging has come on a lot in the past two or three years working with Cockers (Richard Cockerill), and then with that short stint I had working with Pieter de Villiers in the international squad,” he says. “A big thing I’ve added is scrum endurance – being able to scrum well the whole time I’m on the park. It’s something I’ve been working on a lot, my technique, working as an eight, using the guys around me to get in good positions.
“The way we trained (in the Six Nations) it didn’t matter who we came up against, whether it was Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler or (Giosuè) Zilocchi in Italy, nothing changed. You’ve got to believe in what you do and what the coaches are telling you. If you have that buy-in you’re going to get good outcomes. Like we did in the Six Nations.”
Zilocchi, in particular, had a torrid time against the Scot, conceding a series of straight-arm scrum penalties before being replaced after half an hour.
Victory in Cardiff would give Scotland a third successive championship win and a probable third-place finish in the table. Does he see them as a contender for the next World Cup?
“Yeah, absolutely. Everything’s moving very positively in the right direction. It’s a great environment and 90% of your way to being a successful team is everyone getting along and training hard and being there for each other. The way we played in the Six Nations shows how good a team we can be and how good a team we’re going to be in future.”
And is the 2021 Lions tour in his sights? “If I’m fortunate enough to play a lot of rugby and play well, hopefully that would be a possibility. But you can’t get lost in your end goal, you’ve got to work, you’ve got to work. You’ve got to work through the little footsteps and do those things well to be able to reach that.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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