When Rory Sutherland eventually pauses to reflect on his club career, one red-letter day will stand out. That date is 11 January 2020, and the venue was the pressure-cooker of the Stade Chaban Delmas, where Edinburgh were getting pummelled by hosts Bordeaux Begles in front of 35,000 baying Girondists.
The Scots gave a good account of themselves and could even have won the Challenge Cup tie to go top of their pool but for a couple of crucial errors. But if it was a disappointing day for Richard Cockerill’s side, for Sutherland it marked his coming of age after a horrific run of injuries that had sidelined him for the best part of two years.
Up against 19 stone Moldovan tighthead Vadim Cobilas, the cornerstone of a Bordeaux scrum which had been smashing all-comers, the 28-year-old Borderer’s star quality was there for all to see. Indeed, on the basis of that one game Gregor Townsend drafted him straight into the Scotland team to play Ireland in Dublin two weeks later, the loosehead acquitting himself so well against Tadhg Furlong that he retained his Scotland starting spot for the remainder of the tournament.
The Stade Chaban Delmas may have been shorn of spectators – although there will be a thousand present to cheer on Christope Urios’ side – yet Saturday’s Challenge Cup quarter-final will be a welcome return for Sutherland. Although Edinburgh drew the home game 16-16 and then lost 37-19 in Bordeaux, the Edinburgh loosehead has nothing but happy memories of his last trip to the fortress on France’s Atlantic coast.
“That was a big game for me,” says Sutherland. “I realised that it was a massive opportunity for me to turn my career around. For a couple of years before that I had struggled with injury and was just not performing well enough to be in the team, so to go out there and start and then perform well against a big pack and have Gregor think that I had a good enough game to go and start in the Six Nations was awesome.”
Such was Sutherland’s form before the breakdown with both Edinburgh and Scotland, and then since the restart with his club, that he is now regularly mentioned as a possible British & Irish Lion next year. At a stage when he is at his peak and playing injury-free for the first time in several years, he views Saturday as yet another opportunity to prove that he deserves to be Scotland’s first-choice loosehead. The fact that he is the man in possession is, he believes, down almost entirely to his exploits in Europe, which means that the Challenge Cup is a competition that he’s taken to his heart.
“When I first got selected for the national squad and went out to Spain [for the pre-Six Nations camp] Cockers messaged me to say ‘congratulations, well done and well deserved’ after the performances against Wasps and Bordeaux and just told me to keep my head down and keep doing what I'm doing. He said it would be enough to get myself in the Scotland team and it was. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to play in those two [Challenge Cup pool] games – I hadn't played much rugby that season so to get those two starts and be able to put my game out there and be lucky enough to be selected for Scotland was awesome.”
If Sutherland was devastated by Edinburgh’s Pro14 semi-final loss to Ulster last week, this weekend is an opportunity to atone. His preparations have been honed with ferocious scrum sessions from Pieter de Villiers, and a three-and-a-half hour debrief from Cockerill. That has produced a sharp focus from Sutherland.
“The season isn’t done yet, we have a massive game this weekend,” he said. “We’ll look to dominate in the scrum and the tight. We're going out there to take the game to them and to win. I look forward to the challenge.”