THE pressure is on all 23 members of the Scotland squad which will face Tonga on Sunday evening to deliver a performance and result which will keep them in the hunt for qualification into the quarter-finals of this World Cup – but the stakes for one player in particular are higher still.
Loose-head prop Rory Sutherland has overcome a fair amount of adversity in his career. The Hawick native was not initially picked up by the professional game and didn’t sign his first full-time contract until he was 21 in 2014. After establishing himself at Edinburgh and making his Scotland debut against Ireland in March 2016, disaster struck later that same year when he ripped both sides of his groin completely off the bone during the warm-up to a Edinburgh versus Harlequins game.
“It felt like a shotgun going off between my legs,” he later said. Sutherland ended up wheelchair bound for a month, largely bed-ridden for three and rehabilitating for 14. During that time he was told he may never take a comfortable step again, and advised by various specialists that he should forget about rugby as a career.
But he did get back, and after winning his first cap in three-and-a-half years against Ireland at the start of the 2020 Six Nations, he embarked on a tremendous run of form which culminated in his selection for the 2021 Lions tour (despite a shoulder injury scare before setting off for South Africa), where he ended up playing in two of the three Tests.
However, he missed the following Autumn Test Series with an abdomen injury the the final three rounds of the next Six Nations  with broken ribs, which was bad timing given Pierre Schoeman‘s arrival as a key man for Scotland.
It has been a battle for game-time ever since, but that has been a peripheral concern because Worcester Warriors – who he joined in the summer of 2021 – going bust left Sutherland without a job last September, and although Ulster stepped in with a short-term contract until the end of last season, he is now back to being a free agent and hoping his performance on Sunday can catch a potential employer’s eye.
“It is high stakes and there is always that added pressure when you don’t have a contract and you are not getting that opportunity to be in the shop window,” replied Sutherland, when asked to reflect on the importance of his call-up to the starting XV for Sunday’s match after missing out on the match-day 23 that took on South Africa a fortnight ago.
“All you can do is get your head down and train hard to try and get in the team the next week [because] Gregor and the coaching staff are very good that way where they will give guys a chance if they have been busting a gut in training and putting the hard yards in.
“There is a bit of pressure but like everything else – other adversities I’ve overcome during my career – you have to learn to park it,” he added. “Put it to the back of your mind, take things day by day, week by week, and focus on what is important in the here and now. For me, that’s playing, and playing well against Tonga this weekend.”
“I would be lying if I said I was over it [the closure of Worcester],” continued the 31-year-old, who came through the ranks in Hawick alongside the recently retired Stuart Hogg. “It is still something that is in the back of my mind and not just for the rugby, but because my wife Tammy and the kids loved it there.
“Mason and Hamish started school in Scotland so moving to Worcester was a big thing for them but they went there and integrated well – they were great in school – so to take that away from that again was hard for us. We didn’t really have any other option and at the time we found a good club so I went to Belfast while my wife and kids moved back to Scotland, because we thought that would be the best option.
“The sole focus was just making sure I got out of that rut I was stuck in, trying to find another club, and then worry about everything else after that. I found a very good club and went to Belfast where I worked under very good coaches and they played a big role in me being at this World Cup.
“This [playing at a World Cup] is something I have always wanted to do. Earlier on in my career, in 2015 when I first turned professional, Vern Cotter called me to go out for the latter stages of the World Cup, and I think I warmed up as 24th or 25th man but I missed out there. So, I’m really happy and grateful to be here.”
Reality will, of course, bite again after Scotland’s World Cup journey finally runs its course, and Sutherland is acutely aware that his profile and value as a top international player (who is likely to miss large chunks of the season due to Scotland commitments) is a double-edged sword as he hunts opportunities in a market where cash does run anywhere near as freely as it did just a few seasons ago
“With Worcester and the likes of Wasps folding, it has flooded the market with players, and me going to Ulster and then not being able to continue there, has not really helped. It has come along at a bad time,” he acknowledged.
“It also comes down to the salary cap because if people are not looking for a loose-head then they are not going to bring one in as an extra.
“We’re really hopeful that we’ll find a contract, but we’ll just have to sit tight and wait and hopefully something comes along.
“I’m not in a position to be picky [about where I sign next]. I would like to stay in Scotland. That would be nice – lovely for the family and kids not to have to move again. But we’re perfectly willing and we’ve talked a lot about moving away, so if the opportunity comes we’ll do it.
“It is a massive opportunity for me [to showcase myself] this week. It is high stakes for me at the minute, but it’s about coping with that pressure day-to-day, and making sure I channel it into the right things, which means putting out a good performance this weekend.”