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RUGBYPASS+ 'I feel let down': Rory Sutherland on Worcester, Ulster and the Top 14

'I feel let down': Rory Sutherland on Worcester, Ulster and the Top 14
1 month ago

When Rory Sutherland made the call to uproot his family from their merry little haven in the Scottish Borders, to move from Edinburgh and the only professional team he had ever known to Worcester and the Warriors, he thought he was joining a club on the up.

A year down the line, he was left with no job and unpaid wages to nourish a hefty West Midlands mortgage, a deeply uncertain future and the grim prospect of dispersing his clan. So it has been for the past two months, Sutherland flitting between Ulster, where he has found an invigorating new workplace, and the family home in Lauder.

His wife, Tammy, and his two boys have left their house in Worcester, though attempts to sell it have fallen through twice. Ten-year-old Mason and six-year-old Hamish have seen their lives, education and friendships disrupted by the turmoil and mismanagement that sent Warriors free-wheeling towards financial oblivion.

“Frustration. Anger. I feel let down,” Sutherland says, when you ask what the sorry mess has stirred up inside him. “Worcester had dragged me and my family through the dirt.

My kids always saw me as ‘Dad’s a rugby player, a big strong guy’. They then had to see me in a wheelchair and wonder why Dad is playing rugby, why is he trying so hard to get back to the thing that’s put him in the wheelchair?

“I had a lot of conversations with people at the club saying how massive a move this was for me. I can’t imagine they would have known what was going on at the time, but when it went down the pan, I realised I would have to leave Worcester, leave Tammy and the kids and find something else.

“It’s tough in sport to know if you’re making the right decision for your family. A lot of decisions are based around you and your career. When things ended at Worcester, I didn’t find it hard not being able to play. It was having to go home every day and tell my family I still didn’t know what was happening, and the chances are, we weren’t getting paid that month. It was a very difficult time.”

Sutherland says the squad were “led down the garden path” by some of the words and actions of those running the club. The whole episode reminded him of the fragility of elite rugby. Sutherland knows this better than most.

To understand why the Worcester move was so significant to him, and why he felt so aggrieved at how it had been blown up in his face, you have to go back to 2015. A time when Sutherland was a young loose-head on the cusp of Test honours. A time when he felt a gnawing ache in his thighs but chose to ignore it, fearing injury would derail his quest for a Scotland jersey when everyone in the national set-up was seriously excited by his potential. His adductor muscles, responsible for moving the legs inwards, continued to grumble. A few months later, he blew them both clean off the bone.

Sutherland Worcester new club
Rory Sutherland joined Worcester after the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

This is no minor groin strain. Sutherland was confined to a wheelchair for months, unable to sit up or walk unaided. Tammy nursed him as she might an elderly care home resident. He was wheeled from the bed to the sofa where he festered his days away. As rugby was torn from his grasp, he succumbed to severe depression and anxiety.

And so, fit and motoring again, a regular starter at Edinburgh, Scotland’s premier loose-head and on his way to becoming a Test-match Lion, changing clubs was a huge career decision.

“Every specialist in the beginning said to me, ‘forget rugby, you need to think about your quality of life’. That’s how severe the injury was,” he says.

“I had a lot of denial about that. I thought there was no way I could be ending my career at 24, and thinking about a life where I could potentially even be disabled. My first operation failed because I had a bad infection, which lowered my chances of coming back even more.

I’m one of the very fortunate ones who managed to find a contract. A lot of boys didn’t find anything, some of them have given it up, some are still trying.

“The way that made me feel… my kids always saw me as ‘Dad’s a rugby player, a big strong guy’. They then had to see me in a wheelchair and wonder why Dad is playing rugby, why is he trying so hard to get back to the thing that’s put him in the wheelchair? The kids are saying to me, ‘don’t go back, just get a normal job’.

“All those things going around in my head, it was tough. Really hard. I’m really proud of myself for getting through that and thankful for the people I had around me.

“Making it through that, to then be given a chance to start for Edinburgh, start for Scotland the following year, find form internationally, and to be selected for a Lions tour… crazy. Absolutely crazy.”

Teaching himself how to walk again instilled a greater steel in Sutherland. It helped him negotiate these treacherous months at Sixways. Edinburgh’s medical team worked to rehabilitate him. His bench press climbed to 200KG as he built more lean muscle and boiled away layers of fat. Ben Atiga, the former All Black who heads up Scottish Rugby’s mental health support package, was a tireless ally.

Above all, Sutherland worships Tammy for her superhuman capacity to take this stuff in her stride. His physical incapacity and Worcester’s administrative chaos jerked her from carer and mother to counsellor, estate agent, teacher, and a million other impromptu occupations.

Bath Ted Hill
Former Worcester captain Ted Hill left Sixways for Bath when the club entered administration. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“I’m surprised she didn’t chuck me in the bloody rubbish after everything we went through,” he laughs.

“I understand now how important the people around you are. The coaches, backroom staff, people who didn’t give up on me and said they could get me back fit. They kept me in a positive mindset.

“Being able to come back from that was a huge achievement.”

If Worcester was the Titanic, Ulster represented a sturdy life raft. The Warriors players were flung from the sinking ship in to an already saturated player market. This, at a time when the game had never faced such austerity.

Ulster brought sanctuary and familiarity too. Sutherland played under Dan McFarland at Scotland, played with and was later coached by forwards specialist Roddy Grant at Edinburgh. Jonny Petrie was the club’s managing director before moving to Belfast, taking several backroom staff members with him, and Jonny Bell had been on Jonathan Thomas’ Warriors coaching ticket.

“I’m one of the very fortunate ones who managed to find a contract. A lot of boys didn’t find anything, some of them have given it up, some are still trying.

“I had interest from other clubs, a lot of them walked away because of the waiting time with whatever was happening at Worcester. Ulster were interested from the very beginning.

I never really imagined myself, especially at the beginning of my career, fancying France but we do now. It’s a conversation me and my wife have had a lot.

“The environment is great, really high standard in training. That’s been one of the big differences. When we’re training, we train as we play, and there are very high expectations around every aspect of the game.”

Ulster have not quite embodied the snarling, trophy-hunting force they should be of late. Surrendering a handsome lead to 14-man Leinster at the RDS. A 39-0 thrashing by Sale Sharks in Manchester. Twenty-nine unanswered points to La Rochelle in a soulless Aviva, before fighting back to finish within a score. That was Sutherland’s first start, after returning from Scotland duty and a tasty duel for loose-head supremacy with Pierre Schoeman, having a damaged knee. Ulster edged Connacht in a pulsating interpro finale on Friday night to end the losing run.

“The past season-and-a-half, I’ve had a lot of frustrating, niggly injuries where I’ve been out for three or four weeks, back for a couple, then out again. I just want to play consistently, find good form again.

“The last couple of weeks have been very frustrating for us, a bit Jekyll-and-Hyde, and we’ve been very confident we could win those games going into them. Very disappointing how the results have worked out. We were looking for a reaction against La Rochelle and we didn’t get it.

“I want to start playing consistently for Ulster, and make sure I’m putting out some good performances for them. When you’re doing that, you don’t give the international coaches a choice.”

Sutherland is keen to extend his time with Ulster beyond the end of the season, but with Steven Kitshoff, the world champion Springbok, joining next term, his chances are slim. A return to Scotland would be a tempting option, but France and the Top 14 appeals to him now in a way it did not as a younger man.

Kitshoff Springboks Ulster move
Ulster have added Springbok loose-head Steven Kitshoff for next season. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“I think I will be leaving Ulster at the end of the season,” he says. “I would love to stay, but I believe the IRFU only allows one overseas guy in each position per club. Kitshoff fills that. There’s no option for me to stay here. I am gutted, but over the next couple of months we will be having a lot of chats with clubs and trying to gauge what will be the best option.

“There’s always that emotion side to playing for Scottish clubs, but we’re not setting our hearts on that or putting all our eggs in that basket. It would be great for the kids to experience something else. We’re definitely looking at all our options.

“I never really imagined myself, especially at the beginning of my career, fancying France but we do now. It’s a conversation me and my wife have had a lot: do we want to move the kids over? Yeah, we’re really confident we would like to do that. If an option came up in France, we would definitely love to give it a go.

“And I know money is not a subject a lot of people like to talk about in rugby, their wages, and whether their decisions are based on finances. But I have a young family and I have to do the best for them. If that is going to France, that’s what it’ll be.”

When Sutherland arrived in October, Ulster put him up in the plush Stormont Hotel. He has since found a snug “wee house” off Lisburn Road, one of the main routes into Belfast city centre. The family can visit and watch their patriarch in action. He can hop back over to Lauder when his schedule allows. He knows the separation will not last much longer.

“At first, Tammy and the kids were left in Worcester on their own. I found that tough. They’d started school in Scotland and were just settling in at Worcester. I didn’t want to bring them over to Northern Ireland and give them another fresh start, a completely new thing. I didn’t think that was right.

“They’ve got a bit of comfort and stability now, they’re around friends and family. They can come over at weekends for games and I can fly back and forth. Tammy is doing an amazing job. It’s a lot of change but they’ve handled it really well. We’ve got another six months left and hopefully we can be together again.”

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