Heineken Cup: Scottish rain and cold like home from home for WP Nel

Edinburgh's Willem Nel. Picture: SNS
Edinburgh's Willem Nel. Picture: SNS
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THERE can be little doubt that Friday night’s Heineken Cup encounter between Edinburgh and Racing Metro 92 is going to be a tough sell.

With rain and near freezing temperatures being predicted, and the home side already effectively eliminated from the tournament after three losses from three matches so far, the rugby supporters of the capital will find it hard to resist some of the other attractions on offer in the city on the second to last Friday night before Christmas.

WP Nel, the South African prop who joined Edinburgh during the summer, hopes that two of the hardy souls braving the elements will be his wife, Alana, and especially their six-week-old son, Henre.

“He came to our last home game – the victory over the Ospreys – so he is a lucky mascot,” said the 25-year-old. “It’s a bit cold so I will have to see what my wife says about coming along this Friday – but it would be nice to have them there.”

As little Henre was born in Scotland, he will automatically qualify to play for this country if he makes the grade. His father, meanwhile, must go through the mandatory three-year residency requirement.

At times like this, it seems legitimate to ask whether Nel has any regrets about uprooting his family and moving halfway round the world to play for a club which is struggling desperately to justify its status as worthy of competing against the top teams in Europe, in the hope that he will eventually qualify to play for a country which has just plummeted to their lowest-ever world ranking position.

“We’ve settled in really well here. Edinburgh is a beautiful city and the weather certainly isn’t a problem because we came from Bloemfontein, where it regularly hits -5 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter, so we are pretty used to it,” he insists. “We’re all disappointed with how our season has gone so far, but the last couple of weeks have been a lot better. We might have lost over in Paris, but we did some good stuff and it is just frustrating that we did some bad stuff too, and that cost us.

“This is a young team and we are on a learning curve, but we are much happier now than we were a month ago because we have two wins in the Rabo and a good result on Friday will give us some really good momentum for the big games against Glasgow coming up. Hopefully we’ll get a decent crowd on Friday because we are conscious that we let our supporters down in our first home Heineken Cup game against Saracens and we want to make it up to them.”

Under-18s can attend for free with a paying adult if purchased before midnight tomorrow and Nel’s team-mate, Greig Tonks, believes the intensity and tempo of their second-half showing in Paris is the key to unlocking Racing Metro’s defence and lifting the home supporters’ spirits.

“I thought we played some good rugby in the second half, moved the ball well and put a lot of pressure on Racing Metro with some exciting rugby,” said full-back Tonks of last week’s defeat. “Tactically we knew what we had to do and, at times, we did it well, but it didn’t pay off in terms of points. We didn’t take our chances for a couple of scores late on, which was very frustrating. A lot of teams are vulnerable in the last 20 minutes. We felt that was the case with Racing in Paris and I think that’s something we’ll attack again, providing we can sustain a lot of their pressure early on as they’re extremely physical.

“We know how they play and that’s unlikely to change much in the space of a week. We’ll fine tune some small elements and look at a few opportunities in their defence where we think we can get a couple of scores.” One of the club’s first signings for the 2012/13 season, Tonks arrived from Northampton Saints as a highly-rated, but little-known full-back with Scottish qualifications (his mother is from Ayrshire). However, since his arrival, he has established himself as one of the club’s top and most consistent performers, becoming a popular figure with fans thanks to strong counter-attack running from deep and a thundering left boot.

The versatile 23-year old has been deployed at centre and stand-off but is most at home in his favoured role of full-back, where he has started all but one game this season, missing out on the Heineken Cup opener against Saracens with a hand injury. Tonks explained that the opportunity to compete consistently for the club has put him in the best position of his career to improve as a player and strike for international honours.

“I’m really happy with my decision to move to Edinburgh and to have played in almost every game. It’s exactly what I was looking for and was the reason I was so keen to join. It’s been a frustrating season so far, with our results a bit up and down, but I’m loving it here. There’s no substitute for game time so I’m just happy to be involved every week. As far as playing for Scotland is concerned, I think it’s a matter of continuing to play well for Edinburgh Rugby, get results for the club and progress from there.”