SIX months ago, Rory Hutchinson was coming back from injury and battling for his professional rugby career. Tomorrow night he will make his international debut for Scotland off the bench – in their World Cup warm-up match against France – knowing that he has every chance of pushing his way into the 31-man squad which will fly to Japan next month.
It has been a startling turnaround in fortune, but the 23-year-old is no overnight sensation. Since his earliest days playing rugby for Scotland Under-18s, it has been apparent that this is a player with the pace, balance and creativity to go far in the game. He made his debut for Northampton Saints in January 2015 as a 19-year-old, but a combination of injuries and general lack of opportunities for young players in a cut-throat league, limited him to just four starts in four seasons coming into the 2018-19 campaign.
He knew last season had to be his breakthrough year, but when he picked up a knee injury in a pre-season match against Glasgow Warriors, which side-lined him for the first half of the campaign, it was looking pretty ominous for the Cambridge-born utility back who qualifies to play for Scotland through his Glaswegian maternal grandparents.
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Then he eventually got his chance in mid-January, and there was no looking back. Hutchinson scored six tries in 13 matches for Northampton Saints, being named the Gallagher Premiership player-of-the-month in February and nominated for the six-man shortlist for the league’s young player of the season award.
It helped that he had a big supporter in Director of Rugby Chris Boyd, who joined the club from the Hurricanes in his native New Zealand last summer, and took an instant shine to Hutchinson – whilst recognising that he was not quite the finished article.
“The first thing I noticed about Rory is that he is a really gifted rugby player, he has got fast feet and fast hands, but he made a lot of mistakes,” Boyd has recalled. “His skill set is far more suited to the southern hemisphere because he is a high-risk player who is happy doing a lot but what came with that was a lot of mistakes. We just gave him the licence to play.
“The thinking now is that big guys are good, but you can play through the middle of the field through skill as well as size. Rory Hutchinson is capable of getting you across the advantage line as much as a big guy because he has good such good footwork and such good hands.”
The high road to Scotland
It is not surprising that Gregor Townsend was straight on the phone to a player who is clearly suited to the current Scottish rugby philosophy – not that the coach needed to beat the rush to get Hutchinson on board. There was media talk about him perhaps challenging for the England squad at some point, but that wasn’t the way the player was looking at it.
“If it wasn’t for Scottish Exiles – the Under-18s and the Under-20s – then I wouldn’t have played the vast majority of my rugby to date,” he explains. “As a young player I was on the bench for Northampton in ‘A-League’ games and so on, but I played two whole Six Nations and three World Cups with Scotland Under-20s so that was a massive chunk of my rugby development.
“Scotland have put a lot of work and time into me. I just want to make my family proud and represent Scotland and hopefully I can do that soon.
With all Gallagher Premiership clubs required to field at least 70 percent English Qualified Players [EQP] in their match-day squad, committing to the rose would certainly have made him a more attractive and valuable proposition as far as his day-to-day employers are concerned.
“I have had conversations with various people about it and the implications, but it doesn’t phase me,” he states. “The way it has been put to me is that if you are playing well then you will play, so it does have effects, but if you are playing well you should be fine.”
Hutchinson recently signed a year-long contract extension so knows that his medium-term future is taken care of, meaning he can focus fully in the short-term on impressing the Scotland coaching team to push his way into the World Cup squad – with his versatility a factor which could well work in his favour.
“He played a lot of the first part of his senior rugby as a stand-off, including two seasons for Scotland Under-20s and finishing games for Northampton there, but the majority of his games have been at 13 and if you were to ask him what his preferred position would be, it is 12,” said Townsend on Wednesday, when naming Hutchinson as bench cover for all three positions in Saturday’s match.
“Even when he plays with a 13 on his back, Northampton use him as 12 for most of their starter plays. He is a link player who takes the ball to the gain-line, but he also has a real acceleration which is of benefit when you play 13 for that outside break and closing attacks down in defence. The plan would be that he would come on somewhere in that centre field but if he has to come on at 10 for whatever reason we are looking forward to that too. His versatility is very valuable.”
Pete Horne would appear to be the player most vulnerable to Hutchinson’s emergence, but Adam Hastings – who starts at 10 on Saturday – will also be looking over his shoulder as the World Cup squad announcement on 3rd September closes in.
“It would just be a dream come true to represent my family, represent Scotland,” says Hutchinson. “I like to think I have worked very hard to get into this position and if I do play it would be brilliant.”