THE last time Edinburgh visited the Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux was during the pool stages of this season’s Challenge Cup campaign back in January – pre-lockdown – and the 32-17 defeat will not be remembered as a high point for Richard Cockerill’s side. However, loose-head prop Rory Sutherland does have fond memories of the occasion as it was a seminal moment in which the trajectory of his career finally returned to an upward angle following three years of pain and frustration since the horrific adductor (hip/groin) injury he suffered back in October 2016.
That game catapulted him right back into the Scotland team for the first time in almost four years, and his subsequent form during the Six Nations led to him being widely touted as a serious contender to wear the No1 jersey in the Test team during next summer’s Lions tour to South Africa.
“I realise [now] that it was a massive opportunity for me to turn my career around,” he recalls. “For a couple of years before that I had struggled with injury and just not performing well enough to be in the team, so to go out there and start and then perform well against a big pack and have Gregor Townsend think that I had a good enough game to go and start in the Six Nations was awesome.”
It seem so long ago now that it is perhaps worth re-running the first four rounds of the 2020 Six Nations.
Sutherland marked his return to the international fold by more than holding his own against the vaunted Irish tight-head Tadhg Furlong and showing up impressively around the park in Scotland’s opener against Ireland just three weeks after that Bordeaux match.
A week later, he had a tough time in the scrum against England but hung in there, while his midfield charge just after half-time was the stand-out moment in a scrappy match dominated by atrocious weather conditions.
The Italians pride themselves on the strength of their set-piece but Sutherland destroyed opposite number Giosuè Zilocchi for 30 brutal minutes, and then had replacement Marco Riccioni on toast, in an efficient 0-17 win in Rome in round three of the Championship.
But the highlight of his campaign was surely against France, when he gave opposite number Mohamed Haouas such a torrid time that it was surely a factor in the wild punch the tight-head swung at Jamie Ritchie leading to a straight red-card before half-time.
We were all licking our lips in anticipation of how Sutherland and his team would get on down in Wales on the final weekend when Covid caused the game to be called off just 24 hours ahead of kick-off. Hugely frustrating, but Sutherland says he won’t let the pandemic halt his momentum.
“Obviously, it was a bit gutting for me after getting a head of steam up, but it is the same for everyone,” says the 28-year-old. “I think it is all about how you personally trained and kept yourself conditioned during that time, which I found really tough. You don’t realise how lucky you are to train with people every day until you have to do it all on your own.
“But I managed a good few running sessions, got hold of some gym equipment and an exercise bike, and when I came back, I felt like I was in good condition. I’ve had three opportunities already to play so I feel good, I feel fit and I’m ready for the new season.”
Before the new season there is, of course, a return to Bordeaux this coming Saturday lunchtime, when Edinburgh will look to make it third time lucky against their old pool rivals when the two sides in the quarter-final of the Challenge Cup – offering the visitors a chance to secure a first knock-out match win in five attempts under Richard Cockerill and to take another step towards what would be the first piece of meaningful silverware for the capital outfit during the professional era.
It also presents an opportunity to exorcise the demons of Edinburgh’s painful reversal against Ulster in the PRO14 play-offs last time out, although Sutherland insists that looking backwards is not an approach his team will be adopting.
“We need to park the defeat against Ulster and look towards this weekend,” he insists. “This season is not finished by any means so we’re going out there to take the game to them and to win. I look forward to the challenge and hopefully we can make it to the semi-final.
“I think every game you come into is a new challenge and you have to prepare and strategize in a different way. It is not thinking about what they are going to bring to us, it is about how we have prepared to take the game to them.
“We’ll look to dominate in the scrum and the tight. We’ve had the extra week to prepare for that side of things, we’ve had [Scotland coach] Pieter de Villiers in to work with our scrum, so we’ve had a good prep and we’re ready to go out for the win.”