MOST players leave it until late in their careers to make a comeback. Rory Sutherland, however, has already managed two at the age of 27.
Saturday was the culmination of the prop’s second return to the front line, as he won his fourth Scotland cap more than three years after his third. But earlier in his career, too, Sutherland had to stage a recovery after being all but lost to the game at a senior level.
Following recognition at under-18 and under-19 level, domestic commitments and his career as an engineer took priority for the Hawick man for a time. Then, as he recalled earlier this week, in stepped George Graham. Now head coach of Sutherland’s hometown club but then at the helm with rivals Gala, Graham had himself been an international loosehead of some distinction, so it did not take him long to realise that Sutherland’s ability could take him a lot further than the amateur game.
“I did under-18s and under 19s, but I never made the cut for the under 20s,” Sutherland explained. “After that it had a lot to do with my fiance being pregnant. I kind of took a step back from rugby for about six months to a year. It wasn’t until I went to Gala with George Graham that I started to pick back up again.
“My job was the main thing then and it wasn’t until I went to Gala and George said to me I had a real opportunity. He told me that if I went there they could take my game a bit further – and they did.
“He’s a good man and a good coach. He taught me a lot, not just in the scrum, but the mentality and how to bring it into games. I really enjoyed working with him and he brought me on a lot as a player.
“It was just an attitude and a mindset thing going into games. He was big on taking confidence in that belief that you could win. When you’re breathing that in every Tuesday and Thursday at training, come the Saturday we were always ready to go and in a good frame of mind to play the games.”
The comeback kid
After that, Sutherland went from strength to strength, joining Edinburgh as an academy player in 2014 then signing a full-time pro deal the following year. Scotland honours followed in 2016, with a debut against Ireland then two more caps on the summer tour to Japan. Then came the injury, and an operation which left him virtually immobilised for three months.
“I went on the summer tour to Japan and played two Tests, and then came back and had a little while off. It was the start of the 2016-17 season, maybe five games in, and I was just warming up and it was a freak accident. I had been getting problems with my groin for about a year beforehand and I went to sprint in the warm-up and one of my tendons was frayed so it snapped, and because I was sprinting it put so much stress on the other side that that came off as well.
“I had a bilateral groin reconstruction. Both my adductors came off the bone so I had to get them reattached and screwed into the bone again. I was flat on my back for three months.
“Giving it up wouldn’t have been an option. I would have stopped if I had to. I would never have given up trying to get back to playing rugby. But when I went through that time of my life it was very hard to wake up every day and have that drive to want to play again.
“It was a lengthy old process. I went three months of pretty much not being able to move at all to give the operation the best chance to heal. A really long rehab period of teaching my body the mechanics of walking, running again. Doing all those things and then a slow transition into being able to train to play again.”
Strength to strength
When he did come back, it was too soon, he now knows. Well short of real match fitness, Sutherland did not overly impress new Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill, probably falling down the pecking order as a result.
“I played a couple of games and I wasn’t fit enough to play at all. So I think that maybe stuck in his mind a little bit to begin with. I had to go back and do a lot of work on my match fitness.”
Even this season Sutherland has not played a whole lot of rugby, and still has to contend with Scotland team-mate Jamie Bhatti for a place in the Edinburgh squad as Pierre Schoeman’s back-up. But he knows where he stands with Cockerill, and is sure there is a mutual respect there.
“We’ve got a good relationship. He’s open to talking whenever you need to talk to him, although sometimes it’s not the most pleasant of conversations. He’s a good coach and fair man who will let you know if you’re not playing well, and will also let you know if he likes what you’re doing, so you always know where you stand.”
Gregor Townsend has certainly liked what Sutherland has been doing in recent outings for Edinburgh, hence the call-up for the Six Nations and the starting berth in Dublin, where he was particularly effective in the scrum against the much-vaunted Irish tighthead Tadhg Furlong. So now for England, new opponents at international level for Sutherland, who, while very familiar with Murrayfield as an Edinburgh player, has yet to represent his country there.
“It’ll mean a lot to me,” he added. “Being back and getting to play in that blue jersey again means a lot to me. When I was going through those tough times, imagining being where I am now helped to get me through. Having those positive thoughts of ‘Well, it can happen again if I put the work in’ and take it day by day, do the gym work, do the rehab, do the coming back into rugby slowly. It’s worked, so I’m really happy to be back where I am now.”