THE SOUND of Afrikaans being spoken among a group of Edinburgh players yesterday fuelled the belief that Murrayfield is taking on a strong South African flavour, but prop Willem Nel emerged from the huddle to insist that the capital side is not losing its Scottish identity.
When Alan Solomons took over at Ulster in 2001, the South African duly turned to his native land for a core of hardened professionals to instil a fresh consistency in the Ravenhill men. He did something similar when he took the reins at Northampton, so it comes as no surprise that he has followed suit since becoming head coach at Edinburgh in August.
He knows South African rugby better than most and believes that players just under the Test radar could play a significant role in Edinburgh’s bid to become a European force. This week’s new signing, centre Andries Strauss, is the eighth player to have played in South Africa now sporting Edinburgh colours.
Since Nel joined in the summer of 2012, he has been followed from the Republic by the coaching trio of Solomons, Omar Mouneimne and Philippe Doussy, and players Izak van der Westhuizen, Wicus Blaauw, Cornell du Preez, Carl Bezuidenhout and Strauss, while flanker Tomas Leonardi hails from Argentina and stand-off Tony Fenner from England but both played for Solomons’ old Southern Kings franchise. Considering Edinburgh’s squad, including academy talent, numbers around 62, it’s hardly an invasion and Nel laughs off the idea that Murrayfield may be turning into a little bit of South Africa.
“No, that is not the case,” he said. “This is a Scottish club and we are proud to come to play for Edinburgh.
“It makes it easier for me that there are more South Africans. I played with the centre [Strauss] and the lock as well [Van der Westhuizen]. Wicus Blaauw I played with at Western Province in the Vodacom Cup. I didn’t know Cornell as he was just a youngster at Eastern Province. But the whole focus here is just to get a lot better and get this club up.”
Asked what his compatriots might bring to the Scottish game, Nel was reluctant to become involved in any stereotyping.
“Perhaps South African aggression,” he offered, “but it is difficult. Every guy has his own unique stuff he brings to the table. You must get used to the conditions here too, as it’s different for us, to be able to bring all that you want to bring.”
Nel is not an outspoken individual, a quiet man happiest when putting his strength to the test against another mortal, and he has begun to show in 2013 the kind of anchoring ability he can bring to the Edinburgh pack on top of his skills in the loose.
He was not signed by Solomons, but by former coach Michael Bradley, the Irishman using money given to the club by the SRU to attract marquee players. Nel was one of the SRU’s first “project players” and will qualify to play for Scotland in 2015. If professional stand-offs are in short supply in Scotland the tighthead prop position is as difficult, it appears, for Scots to fill impressively, and Euan Murray’s recent injury merely underlines the lack of depth.
For Nel, however, the future is neither Scottish nor South African, but French, in the shape of Saturday’s visitors to Murrayfield, Perpignan. The Heineken Cup seemed dead and buried once again for Scottish sides before Christmas, but Edinburgh’s win away to Gloucester rekindled a flicker of hope.
If they can add Perpignan’s scalp to a host of French ones claimed at home in the past, and produce a shock in Munster, coupled with Gloucester beating the Irishmen at home this weekend and Perpignan finishing with victory against the Cherry and Whites at home – a far from impossible sequence – Edinburgh would be staring at an unlikely place in the quarter-finals.
Even if they win this weekend and claim a point or two in Ireland, they could find themselves among the runners-up fighting for a spot in the last eight of the Amlin Challenge Cup. Nel certainly believes there is real hope, especially after running Perpignan close in the Stade Aime Giral in October, leading for the first 50 minutes and being sliced open after a couple of errors. That was at a time when Edinburgh were still coming to terms with the new coaches’ defensive demands and attacking plays, and while he is wary of what he terms the Murrayfield “sponge” pitch, and the struggles for front rows to get a foothold in the scrum, Nel is confident that this burgeoning Edinburgh team with its growing South African spine may surprise onlookers over the next two weeks.
“I don’t think we have spoken about how we can go forward [qualify],” Nel added. “Munster must lose every game now and we must win every game.
“But for us as players every game we have been getting stronger and stronger and to win these two games will mean a lot of us as a group, so it is important to go game by game.
“And this is a big game. All French teams have massive packs and it can take some time to wear them down, but you do that and make them tired so you can get on top of them.
“We can take a lot from that [game in Perpignan]. We had just started in the Heineken Cup and the way we have grown since then we can take all that 40-50 minutes at the start and be confident that we can beat those guys. We are much better than we were back then.”
SOUTH AFRICA’S CAPITAL ‘BIG SIX’
Willem Nel (prop)
Tighthead signed from the Cheetahs by Michael Bradley last season and targeted as a potential Scotland Test player under three-year residency rule
Izak van der Westhuizen (lock)
Another Cheetahs signing from the Northern Cape, and Super 15 regular, brought to Edinburgh by Bradley. The 27-year-old joined the club in October 2012 on a two-year contract.
Wicus Blaauw (prop)
First of Alan Solomons’ South African signings, the 27-year-old, who was born in Namibia, joined Edinburgh in the summer after three years with the Stormers in the Super 15 and a season at Biarritz.
Cornell du Preez (back row)
The 22-year-old from Port Elizabeth was rated highly by Solomons at Southern Kings. Arrived in Edinburgh in September on two-year deal.
Carl Bezuidenhout (stand-off)
The former Sharks and Pumas stand-off, 27, joined in December to provide cover after Harry Leonard joined Gregor Hunter and Piers Francis on the injured list.
Andries Strauss (centre)
This week’s recruit, the 29-year-old brother of hooker Richardt, who made his debut for Ireland in 2012 after three years at Leinster, was Solomons’ captain at the Southern Kings Super 15 side. A Currie Cup winner and South Africa sevens cap, signed to 2016.