In a year of chicanes, Rory Hutchinson began the new season injured, spent much of the middle chunk negotiating a Covid-19 outbreak at Northampton Saints, and was then omitted from Scotland’s Six Nations squad. So far, the campaign has thrown one hurdle at the centre after another.
Owing to the concoction of a 12-week lay-off and three coronavirus-related postponements, Hutchinson has started seven games, and only four before Gregor Townsend made his championship selection. But since returning to fitness, the 25-year-old has dazzled. Hutchinson has a precious play-making capacity, the footwork and intelligence to stutter and arc through defences and a slick off-loading game.
Townsend was not sufficiently compelled to pick him, though. The integrity of Scotland’s ‘bubble’, where exile players return to their clubs during fallow weeks, may have done for him, and so too the lack of minutes.
“I felt like I still had enough games to do it,” Hutchinson responds. “They went with a different selection so all I can do is play well for Northampton and get on with it. I can’t sulk or be upset about it because I’ve got to do a job here.
“There is that period where you’re disappointed but you’ve got to be able to move on quickly. Luckily, I’m able to do that, whether it’s injuries or non-selection. I’ve not been selected before, so the way you bounce back is the most important.
“Gregor and I have been in contact and he’s told me what I need to do, and what I’ve been doing well. It’s a healthy relationship, he’s trying to make me a better player and I respect that.”
? Celebrations in 2021 be like… pic.twitter.com/BReXHUhvaL
— Northampton Saints ? (@SaintsRugby) January 31, 2021
These past few years, Hutchinson has taken a microscope to his game. His attacking verve is his point of difference, but it is not merely enough to be a rapier with the ball. He has worked hard to improve the defensive side of his game in line with Townsend’s more pragmatic recent approach.
The outside centre position is widely regarded as the hardest in which to defend. So much happens in front of you; so many threats steaming down your channel and so many changes of angle at such blistering pace that it must sometimes feel like watching a Grand Prix careering headlong in your direction.
“I’m pretty honest with myself and there are some areas in the past defensively where I probably wasn’t as good as I was in my attack so I want to even that out,” Hutchinson tells RugbyPass. “I don’t want there to be an excuse for the next time.
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“A lot of the reason why people say 13 is a difficult place to defend is because there are a lot of individual tackles and individual decisions. That relationship with your winger and your 12 is tough.
“I don’t think you can put your finger on just once thing, but decision-making under pressure, being able to make those really important decisions in a split-second. At 13, you’ve got to be able to either hit the guy running short or the guy out the back, to drift or be aggressive in defence. There is a technical and tactical part of it.
“The tackle is very important; you get a lot of side-on and front-on tackles. You can do your one-on-one tackle stuff in a 5m channel and it’s not really putting yourself under too much pressure – it’s being able to do it in training at full tilt.”
Chris Boyd, the Saints’ shrewd coach, is happy to use Hutchinson in either midfield position. “He wants the best players on pitch,” says the Scot. Townsend has exploited his versatility to provide extra cover at 10 in the past.
When he can, Hutchinson watches his pals in the Six Nations. He was gripped by the mayhem of Scotland’s one-point loss to Wales last Saturday, Zander Fagerson’s red card and the mesmeric rugby on show.
Hutchinson harbours a lust to be there with them, but no bitterness at looking on from the sidelines.
“They’re all my friends so I want to support them,” he says. “I felt bad for Zander at the weekend, obviously tough, you get these split decisions and he’s unfortunately come off on the wrong side. I thought Scotland were going to win at the end with Finn Russell flicking the ball out the back, I thought Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe were very good.
“The game against England, they were on the front foot form the start and their tactics were brilliant. Hopefully this loss doesn’t change anything because they’ve got a lot going for them.”
Back in England, Northampton laboured through a grim early part of the season, what with poor results and a slew of postponements, but they are beginning to find their mojo again. They saw off Worcester, won at Kingsholm and the Ricoh Arena before castling the mighty Exeter Chiefs in Devon in a bruising and desperately close affair.
“This time last year, we would have lost that game against Wasps, and now we’re learning to grind those types of games out,” Hutchinson says.
“I want to win a Premiership. If that’s not on everyone’s radar, it’s a bit of a weird one. We want to make the top four first and we want to win silverware. I’d hate to look back on my career and not be able to look back on those memories of winning silverware. That means playing my game. We play a lot through our ball players and for me that’s quite an important role for the team.
“We showed that we did it in our first year under Chris [Northampton reached the semi-finals where they lost to Exeter]. Nothing really changed for us when we lost a bit of form post-first lockdown.
“I thought it was a confidence thing, we were just slightly off our game and it shows that the type of game that we play, those mistakes can hurt us. Now our confidence is up and those little errors are going out of our game, our discipline is a lot better than it was at the start and it’s just grinding out those games now. It’s really important to win at home, but the teams that win the league, they get those away wins.”
Hutchinson’s ambitions are lofty, but not far-fetched. Boyd has them playing an exhilarating, high-tempo style and when it works, it is gloriously effective. With the threat of relegation removed, other Premiership teams might play with more abandon. Saints do it better than most, with a swaggering, hot-stepping Scotsman at their core.
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