South Africa-born Scotland prop WP Nel admits he pondered his international future after the recent World Cup but insists he still has the desire to challenge for a Test place, writes Scottish journalist BRYN PALMER.
The former Cheetahs tighthead, who will be 34 at the end of April, featured in all four of Scotland’s matches in Japan – starting three – as they bowed out in the group stages.
After returning to Edinburgh, where he recently activated a clause to prolong his contract for a further season, Nel then suffered an injury that kept him out until mid-December.
But he opted not to follow former captains Greig Laidlaw and John Barclay, plus winger Tommy Seymour, in retiring from Scotland duty.
‘There are a lot of things that went on after the World Cup,’ Nel said. ‘A lot of things went through my mind. Some guys stepped down and ended their careers and in the back of your mind, there is always that thought a little bit. Even when I went back and pulled my calf, you think, “Is now the time?”
‘But it is a bit of wake-up call. I still want to do it. I still want to improve and I still want to be pushing for that No 3 jersey. If that desire has gone then I know that is my time, but at this moment the desire is still there to push for that jersey.’
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Nel, who missed most of the 2016-17 season with a neck injury he feared might end his career, believes Scotland are also benefiting from the addition of scrum coach Pieter de Villiers, the South Africa-born former France prop.
‘It has definitely been lacking for a while, I would say. It’s not just on the pitch, it’s behind the scenes, speaking to the ref, bringing forward to the players that finer detail. You can see what a difference he’s made already.’
While his focus is on Scotland’s next Six Nations match against France on Sunday, there is also a looming tour to South Africa in July, with Test matches in Cape Town – the last ever at Newlands, where Nel started his career with Western Province – and Durban.
‘It would be lovely,’ admits Nel, who faced the Springboks in the 2015 World Cup and at Murrayfield in 2018 but has never played a Test in South Africa.
‘But I still need to be part of the squad and playing good rugby. It is not really on my mind at the moment but it would be lovely to play there.’
Nel has lost his starting spot to Glasgow’s Zander Fagerson, nearly 10 years his junior, for the first three matches of Scotland’s Six Nations campaign.
He was omitted initially for the opener against Ireland before a late call-up to the bench after clubmate Simon Berghan dropped out through illness.
Berghan returned against England but Nel was preferred again as bench cover for the victory over Italy in Rome, winning his 37th cap five years after his debut, aged 29, against the same opponents.
Nel is philosophical about the rise of Fagerson, who he has helped develop in the Scotland set-up.
‘It is about time!’ he joked. ‘He is a great player and he is playing well, but I will be there behind him – he knows I am there. It is great competition and he has taken his opportunity.
‘He is doing well at the moment, so it is great for Scotland and great for the team. If I can help him get better, that’s even better.
‘I am now at the stage where if I can start or be on the bench, I just want to improve that No 3 position. If I can still be competitive, I will be there and give them the nudge they need to be on top of their game.’
Photo: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images