RORY Sutherland has enjoyed a lot of highs as a rugby player, from being selected for Scotland to representing the British & Irish Lions. And when he moved from Edinburgh to Worcester last year that, too, seemed to be another step in his career’s continuing upward trajectory.
But, while all went well at first with the English Premiership club, events took a far darker turn in recent months as Worcester slid into administration. Scotland loosehead Sutherland and every other member of the Worcester squad – including national team-mate Duhan van der Merwe – had their contracts terminated.
The players had known for some time that their employer was in trouble, and a planned pre-season friendly against Glasgow in Inverness was cancelled as a result of mounting financial concerns. But the end, when it came, was still a shock, and immediately sent all of them scrambling around in search of new clubs.
Only a few have so far been successful, among them Van der Merwe, who has come back to Edinburgh, and Sutherland, who has signed with Ulster for the rest of the season. Yet even for those lucky few, it has been a traumatic time, as Sutherland explained.
“It was a tough couple of months,” said the 30-year-old, who is currently with the Scotland squad as they prepare for Sunday’s home Autumn Nations Series match against the All Blacks. “But I’m one of those fortunate guys that’s found a contract. Forty players lost their jobs, and from what I’ve seen there’s probably eight players who have managed to get a job.
“I really hope that Worcester can pull it together and can find a businessman that’s willing to buy the club and get it back on its feet again. But it’s a horrible situation to be in.
“It went on for a long time. When it first came out in the media, we had just been told the day before that there was trouble at the club.
“It’s quite a hard thing to explain. I feel like I’ve dragged my family through the dirt with it. It was a really hard time just not knowing what was going to happen week to week, and even day to day as well – we got updates every day on what was happening.
“But, like I say, it was a very tough couple of months for my family.”
When it became obvious that Worcester were on the verge of going under, Sutherland was linked with his old club Edinburgh, where head coach Mike Blair expressed an interest in signing both him and Van der Merwe. Then Glasgow were in the frame. In the end, however, the player decided that Ulster was the best move.
“There were talks [with the two Scottish clubs], but nothing ever came of it,” he explained. “When it started going downhill a little bit at Worcester, my agent messaged me and said that there was a couple of clubs interested. And because it dragged on for so long and we weren’t allowed to leave, I lost a few contracts.
“But Ulster was always one that I was very impressed by. It’s a very good team and when I played against them at Edinburgh they were always a tough team to play against. And so far I’ve really enjoyed it.”
When it comes to the coaching staff at least, Sutherland feels that the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast is familiar territory. Head coach Dan McFarland was Gregor Townsend’s assistant with Scotland in the 2017-18 season, assistant Roddy Grant graduated from playing at Edinburgh to being a member of the back-room team there before making the short hop to Belfast, and chief executive Jon Petrie held the same post at Edinburgh during Sutherland’s early seasons with the capital club.
“I played with Roddy Grant and then I was coached by him briefly at Edinburgh as well,” Sutherland added. “It’s nice to see familiar faces.”
This month, of course, has seen Sutherland back with many more familiar faces as part of the Scotland squad, where, with his immediate playing future settled, he can focus fully on the bid to be part of the first Scottish side to ever beat New Zealand. After being part of the squad that laboured against Fiji last Saturday before eventually emerging with a 28-12 victory, he knows that a big improvement will be needed this weekend if the team are to make history against the All Blacks.
“It’s something we’ve been building towards for a long time, getting a crack at New Zealand,” he added. “I think against Fiji we were our own worst enemy at times with discipline, and that’s a big work-on for us this week. We can’t make mistakes like that against New Zealand.”