The Edinburgh loosehead is hoping to pull his socks up and run out at the Principality Stadium for what would be his 14th cap in Saturday’s Doddie Weir Cup Test against Wales which kicks off the four-match autumn series.
The 26-year-old went from the high of a surprise injury call-up to the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand last summer to the agony of a bulging disc on his back which compressed a nerve and led to further complications.
The upshot was that he missed most of last season after what had been a stunning rise to Test rugby after a long battle to gain regular selection for Edinburgh, where the now retired Al Dickinson was the club’s leading No 1.
“I thought about quitting rugby at one stage, especially with the back and groin at the same time,” said Dell at Scotland’s Oriam training base yesterday.
“I was at a stage where I was thinking ‘am I going to carry on with rugby?’ With the way the body was feeling and the things I couldn’t do that I’d taken for granted.
“Just getting out of bed, putting your socks on. When you have pain like that, you start thinking about your future. It’s not something you want to live with. I’m just happy and grateful that I’m out of that.”
Dell revealed that a strong personal network and a desire not to return to rural life in his native Eastern Cape drove him on to come back towards the end of the season and win a place on Scotland’s summer tour. After shaking off more niggles earlier in this campaign, he is now primed for a second appearance against Wales but a first in Cardiff.
“Family support and just remembering why you play the game,” said Dell of his emergence from those dark times, “and also that I’d have to go back and work on the farm, get up at 5am and home at 8pm covered in dust and cow excrement, you don’t really want that, eh?
“My wife, family and support were pushing me and you get through. I was 25, 26 and you think I could have another ten years of a career and one day I might of thought ‘what if?’ and would miss something you’ve known your whole life.
“You’re not going to give that up easily. You have a soft moment when your brain starts playing tricks on you but you get over it. I got the help I needed.”
At just 16-and-a-half stone, Dell admits that he is not as mobile and freewheeling a front rower as he was, but has worked on other aspects of his game to compensate.
“I have definitely changed the way I play a lot,” he said. “I’m not as free around the park. I have tried to adapt the game and I’m maybe not as explosive as I used to be.
“I am trying to get my speed and agility back up there. I’ve put a big emphasis on my set-piece. I’ve just gone back to a more safer, set-piece oriented kind of style, trying to do my job around the park and make my tackles.
“Whereas, previously, I maybe wanted to just get the scrum over and done with and get the ball in hand and play. It’s difficult, but I’m trying to find a balance between the two.”
Dell rejects the notion that his size is an issue, though, even at the highest level.
“I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “You’ll always have that thing with the lower-hanging fruit – someone will always pick it because of the size element.
“I’ve focused on that a lot and a lot of the coaches I’ve had have helped me with that side of things. It’s been about finding a way that I can scrum because I’m not the biggest guy physically. I can’t just rely on my weight in the scrum. I always have to be switched on. If I make a mistake, I don’t have the size to just rely on my bulk.”
The injury woes mean Dell missed that Six Nations shocker at the Principality Stadium in February but centre Huw Jones, pictured left, is hoping for a shot at redemption on Saturday.
The Glasgow centre admits it is not a venue he will return to with much relish in the wake of that 34-7 drubbing. “People always say how good is the atmosphere down there. I’ve played there once and it wasn’t great for me,” said the 24-year-old with a rueful smile. “It is the sort of place that can be hostile if it’s not going your way.
“No-one really played that well in that game, it was a bit of a shocker and we’re looking forward to putting that right this time.
“As a group we were fairly inexperienced then. Gregor had only a few games in charge and there were a lot of new players in that squad. We’ve had a lot of games since then. I think maybe this time round there won’t be any complacency.
“Last time we’d had a pretty good autumn and had gone into the Six Nations maybe believing in the hype a bit. And it came back to sting us so we won’t be doing that again.
Jones, who was given the summer off, insisted that experience won’t put the Scots into their shells on Saturday, as the Calcutta Cup hero looks to add to his prolific strike rate of ten tries in 16 caps.
“I think we still want to stick to our style of rugby, but be aware of tactical elements of the game,” said Jones. “Last time for the first five or six minutes the ball didn’t go out and we were pretty knackered, I’m sure they were as well, but they took an opportunity straight after that and got points on the bard which put us in a tough position.
“I think we still want to play our style, just be better at it.”