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Rory Sutherland: From depression and a wheelchair to going on Lions

By Liam Heagney

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It was incredible to see how Rory Sutherland comfortably fitted in on the recent Lions tour, the 29-year-old putting his encouraging Scotland form to very good use by forcing his way into selection for two of the three Test matches versus the Springboks. What the pictures from Cape Town couldn’t convey, though, was the loosehead’s inspiring journey to even make it in the pro ranks. 

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He was an apprentice engineer, working on-site when he first took the call from Edinburgh offering him a half-professional, half-development contract to step into the paid ranks. Then came the trauma of a miserable time with injuries that led to depression, saw him confined to a wheelchair and even have specialists tell him to knock rugby on the head, that he was finished.

Sutherland somehow refused to buckle but even when he emerged out the other side of all the dark days and the painful injuries, he still had a mountain to climb as Richard Cockerill, his Edinburgh boss from 2017 onwards, simply didn’t fancy him beyond a couple of minutes here and there off the bench. They just didn’t see eye to eye and it seemed destined to end in tears. Except it didn’t.

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Jonny Hill guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload
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Jonny Hill guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload

The prop managed to get a run in the side around Christmas 2019 and that led to a first Scotland call up since 2016. Thirteen Test caps later, Sutherland was then chosen by Warren Gatland to tour with the Lions and now he is preparing for a Worcester debut this weekend versus Exeter following an eye-catching decision this summer to move south of the border. 

It was July 1, when he was already in South Africa, when the deal was officially announced, Sutherland joining fellow Lions pick Duhan van der Merwe in feeling their career would be best served at the Warriors rather than sticking by an Edinburgh outfit that ironically called it quits with its boss Cockerill in July. 

“There weren’t negotiations still going on then,” Sutherland told RugbyPass when on deck at this week’s Worcester briefing. “We had been discussing it for quite a while before that. There was a lot going on at that point with being selected for the Lions. It was a busy time in my life.” That’s not a complaint, by the way. Given the arduous Sutherland journey to making himself a Lions candidate, he will take being busy any day to the idle days of old where he was saddled with worry that his career was at an inescapable dead end.  

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“I came into professional rugby with an unconventional route where I did an apprenticeship in engineering first and I was actually working when I got a phone call from Edinburgh, they asked me to come up for a trial so I went in for a trial and they offered me a half-professional, half-development contract so I took it,” he explained, winding the clock back to how it all started for him in the Scottish capital under Alan Solomons, the coach who is now the Worcester director of rugby.  

“At that time I got very lucky in the pre-season where two looseheads went down so I got quite a lot of game time. I have got Alan to thank for that, he gave me a lot of opportunities when I first came into the professional game but I struggled a little with my groin and I ignored it for a long time, probably two years.

“I had just come back from a tour with Scotland and was warming up for a game against the Harlequins. I had gone sprinting in the warm-up and both my adductor tendons came off the bone so I had to get a bilateral groin reconstruction which took about 14 months to come back from and at that time there was a change of coach, that was when Richard Cockerill came in. 

“I didn’t have a very good first impression with him, being injured and trying to come back and be fit. I didn’t get many opportunities for that period from 2016, 2017 through to about 2019 where I got a couple of opportunities at Christmas time and saw myself in the Six Nations squad in 2020. I have never really looked back since. I’ve had good consistent game time since then and was fortunate enough to go on a Lions tour.”

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There can be no glossing over the adversity encountered before it all came right. “Mental health, it’s important that it is recognised more in rugby now because it does exist and I know it’s a very grey area because for me if I was to talk about my experience I would say depression and anxiety and all those things, you have to experience and feel it to know what it is.

“After my operation, I went through sort of a month’s bed rest and I spent some time in a wheelchair as well and was talking to some specialists that were saying, ‘Never think about rugby again, forget about rugby and think about having a normal life’.

“It was a lot to take in and it was a really hard time. If you asked me to tell you how I got through it I couldn’t. I just did (get through it), I got to the other side of it and it was a tough time. I can’t thank my family enough and my wife and kids for getting me through that time. It was tough.”

The good times then followed. “It was a huge build-up sort of over two years, 2020 and this year when I have been involved with Scotland a bit more and then the Lions stuff. At Edinburgh, I went through a couple of years where I was scraping the barrel for five and ten minutes at the end of games. 

“It was a big build-up over two years and the question was, ‘Is it time for me to get a change?’ I had a lot of experience playing at Edinburgh, played a lot of games for Scotland and I just felt it was the right time for me to make a change in my career, put myself out there and put myself under a bit more pressure, take myself out of my comfort zone (and join Worcester).”

Fresh from his post-Lions tour break, Sutherland is now four weeks into his new life at Worcester and the signs are promising. “Great club, great facilities and getting on well with the coaches. Looking forward to getting stuck in.” His family haven’t joined him yet as the house they will move into won’t be ready for another few weeks, but he has had a long enough period to put the Lions tour into perspective and formulate thoughts on why a series that started so well ultimately ended in defeat. 

“We had a very good camp in Jersey before we left,” he said. “The warm-up games went very well and I feel like we prepared very well for the Tests. In the first one, we had quite a strong game up front and played well in the forwards. We had a good scrum, a good maul and that slightly deteriorated through the second and the last game and we had a bit of ill-discipline as well.

“You can’t do that against the Boks, you can’t let them kick you in the corner and maul you or give cheap penalties away close to your line. They will take those opportunities. We were our own worst enemy at points in the tour but I really enjoyed it, it was a great experience with a great bunch of men. 

“You can look at it outside rugby as well, just as a person learning, training, playing with some of the best players in the world. Learning what motivates them, what makes them train well, their habits on and off the field and even with the coaches, you’re working with top-level coaches. It’s not just the experience on-field, it’s the experience of it as well. I learned a lot as well about myself on tour. It was a great time, a great experience.”

What sticks most in the mind of Sutherland about the Lions? “An example would be the way that we trained. We trained very intensely throughout the tour, maybe 40 to 50 minutes, but there weren’t many breaks within that. With everything we did we did under fatigue and I suppose you learn a bit about yourself there. 

“When you are playing under fatigue you learn to be comfortable while being uncomfortable if that makes sense, trying to learn yourself how to be in very high-pressure situations, almost blowing a gasket and still having your head on and getting through reps and still learning through that. I’d say that was one of the biggest things I would take out of it.”

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Rory Sutherland: From depression and a wheelchair to going on Lions

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