TEST flankers once seemed to drop off the Murrayfield production line with the same exciting regularity as Scottish scrum-halves, but the arrival of Cornell du Preez to the national stadium suggests times may be changing.
With Stuart McInally following Ross Ford to the front row and Ross Rennie enduring arguably the most punishing battle with injury ever inflicted on a Scotland internationalist, Edinburgh have become stretched in the back row department.
With John Barclay at the Scarlets and Glasgow turning to a South African, Tyrone Holmes, to fill the hole at the Warriors, after a decade of producing good native talent the pendulum may be swinging again.
Argentine Tomas Leonardi has been signed for Edinburgh on a short-term contract but, after enjoying his first start for the team in Saturday’s Heineken Cup win over Munster, South African Du Preez has made it clear that he is here to stay. The 24-year-old followed his mentor Alan Solomons and defence coach Omar Mouneimne from the Southern Kings to Scotland, and the head coach was delighted with his decision to agree a two-year deal with Edinburgh, not least because he, and the SRU, succeeded in luring him from under the noses of Australian Super 15 side the Western Force.
He is happy to admit that playing international rugby for Scotland, if he was to stay for three years and qualify through residency, as Tim Visser did, was part of the attraction.
“Playing all over Europe against teams with all of the international players was one of the reasons, but that [playing for Scotland] was definitely one of the main reasons,” Du Preez conceded.
“At the moment I am just focused on playing for Edinburgh, but that was one of the main factors.
“I had an opportunity to stay in Super Rugby, go to the Force, or try something new. I wanted to try something new and play in this competition, and [there may be] the chance to play international rugby. Alan and Omar had a big influence on it as well. They made it a bit easier.”
The back row has always been a crucially important area of a team, but with the development of players’ size and physicality, and new and changing onus on technique at the breakdown work, southern hemisphere players challenged more regularly and at a higher intensity have come into their own.
There have already been questions asked as to how the signing of Du Preez, alongside ten other newcomers to Edinburgh this summer, might affect the development of native Scots to come through, but city boy McInally stated at the weekend that he merely views the influx of new players as increasing competition, and that he expects the likes of Roddy Grant and a fit Rennie to respond in kind.
Du Preez had an inauspicious start when picking up a yellow card after coming off the bench in Edinburgh’s loss away to Cardiff, but he was one of their impressive performers at Murrayfield on Saturday and has also won admirers among team-mates with his intensity in training. After Saturday’s beating of Munster, he also believes that his new team have what it takes to become a successful outfit.
“[Captain] Greig [Laidlaw] told us in the week before the game that nobody thought we could do it,” he revealed. “But the people in that room said we would stick to each other and believe we were going to win, and that belief is the thing that pulled us through.
“At the Kings we got thrown together a few months before the [Super 15] competition, which is basically the same thing that has happened here with the coaches arriving so late, so each game we are showing that we are improving, and we are getting there.
“I did not know a lot about what was going on or about Edinburgh Rugby before I came... but I have seen that there is a lot of potential here, and as long as the guys keep working hard I am confident that we will get benefits.”
Du Preez is not a huge man - his 6ft 4in and near-17 stones official club stats seeming generous - but he is a strong, quick and agile player, comfortable, he says, in any back row position. The lure of Test rugby might have helped bring him to Scotland, but those prospects are a long way off right now as he bids to get to grips with a new team in a new hemisphere, preparing for his first Heineken Cup trip to Perpignan on Sunday.
“I have always dreamt about playing in the Heineken Cup after watching it as a little boy growing up in South Africa, so it was nice getting my first taste of it,” he said. “I expected a physical confrontation and I knew it was going to be quick, and our performance was something to remember as well.
“I am excited. I don’t expect too much. I will just stay in the moment, but I think it is possible for us to back up the win against Munster. We want to show we are not just a one-hit wonder and can perform week in and week out, and if we back our systems and stay composed we have a chance to win.
“It will be tough and they [Perpignan] like to feed off their strengths, but we can get energy from them. They have a big pack of forwards but I would back our defence any day.”
Profile: Cornell Du Preez
Born: Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 23 March 1991.
Clubs: Eastern Province Kings (2012-2013); Edinburgh (2013-)
Representative honours: South Africa Academy (2009); South Africa Under-20 (2011)