IT IS fair to say that 2020 was an eventful year for Rory Sutherland on and off the pitch. When it began he had yet to start a single match in the Six Nations and had just three caps to his name. When it ended he had taken his tally of Test appearances to 11, established himself as a solid, authoritative figure in the Scotland front row, and got married into the bargain. If 2021 holds even half the excitement, it will still be highly memorable for the man from Hawick.
Certainly, the 28-year-old, who looks sure to hold on to the No 1 jersey for Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham, made up for a lot of lost time last year. After making his debut off the bench against Ireland then starting twice against Japan in 2016, he suffered some severe injury setbacks, taking years to get back to the form that had won him Test recognition. Last season he not only got back to it, he surpassed it, becoming Scotland’s first-choice loosehead by some margin.
“It’s been busy,” he said today, in typically understated style, when asked about his irresistible rise since the start of 2020. “It has been really good: a great year for me on and off the field. My international career has picked back up again and I was able to marry my beautiful wife Tammy. It’s been a good year and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
For a moment last month, after sustaining a back strain in training, Sutherland feared that this year might begin in the worst fashion, with him ruled out of the start of the Six Nations through injury. Thankfully, though, the damage proved nothing that a week’s rest could not cure, and he goes into the game against England in good shape.
“It was just a bit of a freak accident,” he recalled. “I was feeling a little stiff after the game and went into the gym on Monday and went to do an exercise and wasn’t feeling right. So I went to the physio and went into a spasm.
“Only took a week or so to recover, and I’ve been well looked after and firing on all cylinders and ready to go. Missing games is the first thing that goes through your mind when you get an injury, but I was fortunate that it was only a week.”
It goes without saying that, as well as 2020 being hugely enjoyable, there was a lot of hard work involved too, and not only from Sutherland himself. The Edinburgh prop also credits Scotland assistant coach Pieter de Villiers with a major role not only in the flourishing of his own game, but in that of the pack as a whole.
“Pieter has done a lot for me – I’ve really enjoyed working with him. He’s a great guy to have around the camp. He’s very good at passing his knowledge across to the players and he’s good at fixing the bits in the scrum that we aren’t doing so well.
“He’s done wonders for me over the past year or so, just working on technical areas of my scrummaging. He’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, just looking at the little technical aspects of my individual game to make it better.”
Sutherland’s technique as well as his sheer strength has made him one of the members of Gregor Townsend’s squad most likely to win a place on this summer’s Lions tour, should it happen. But he has no intention of resting on his reputation, insisting that consistency in the here and now has to take precedence over past glories.
“A bit of a reputation is nice, and it’s nice to hear good things from people about the way I’m playing. But it’s about keeping a head of steam up and making sure I perform week in, week out.”
Neither side really got up a decent head of steam in last year’s Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield, which ended with the visitors scraping to a 13-6 win. That was Scotland’s second loss in a row following their defeat in Ireland, but they went on to win their remaining three games – results which, allied to some promising performances in the Autumn Nations Cup, have persuaded Sutherland that he and his team-mates should go into this tournament with a fair degree of confidence.
“I think that was a very difficult one to judge on,” he said of the 2020 meeting with England. “The weather was absolutely terrible – really wet and windy and very difficult for both teams.
“Talking to a lot of the guys after the game, we were up against one of the best teams in the world and feeling very comfortable. It was a huge anti-climax that we let it slip in the last 20 minutes.
“There’s a lot of stuff we’re working on this week to try and right those wrongs. We’re preparing the best we can to go down there and get the win.
“We’ve got to take confidence from our performances in the Six Nations last year and in the Autumn Nations. We had some very good performances against some really good teams. We’ll be taking that confidence into this game.”