‘Project’ WP Nel is up and running for World Cup

SOON after 9pm Italian time on Saturday evening, Willem Petrus Nel became the first official “project player”, a player recruited from abroad specifically to play Test rugby, to win an international cap for Scotland.
WP Nel in training last week ahead of his first cap for Scotland. Picture: SNS/SRUWP Nel in training last week ahead of his first cap for Scotland. Picture: SNS/SRU
WP Nel in training last week ahead of his first cap for Scotland. Picture: SNS/SRU

The man from South Africa replaced a man from South Yorkshire and, while Mike Cusack, who was substituted, may have been a long-term project, the SRU never officially dubbed him as one.

It is one down with one still to go, because Josh Strauss, Glasgow’s hirsute No 8, will qualify for Scotland on 19 September, one day after England host the World Cup’s opening fixture against Fiji.

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Strauss is a stone-cold certainty for head coach Vern Cotter’s World Cup squad, assuming that he stays injury-free. The South African pair will then have every chance of playing against the old country when Scotland face the Springboks in Newcastle.

Whatever you may think of Scotland’s recruitment policy (and the SRU are not alone in utilising the rule), the influence of Nel on Saturday’s 16-12 win over Italy in Turin was every bit as substantial as the tighthead himself.

The defining moment of the World Cup warm-up match probably arrived ten minutes into the second half.

Up to that point the Italians had enjoyed the better of the set scrums, targeting Cusack relentlessly and milking several penalties, one of which Gonzalo Garcia hoofed through the posts from fully 50 yards out.

That great icon of Italian rugby Martin Castrogiovanni had just been called off the bench to great acclaim and just about his first action was a short-range charge for the Scotland try line where, the TMO decreed after viewing the available footage, that he had been stopped just short.

However, Italy had a five- metre scrum and the crowd were collectively licking their lips, the buzz of anticipation rising to a roar as they sensed that Scotland were on the ropes.

Instead of delivering the knock-out blow, the new all-Edinburgh Scottish front row of Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford and WP Nel squeezed the Azzurri pack backwards.

It may only have been inches and it was at snail’s pace but at that precise moment Nel’s worth to his new country could be seen from space.

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“It was really tough,” said the little Scotland prop with the broad Afrikaans accent.

“One of my toughest 30 minutes. But I’m glad I got on the pitch and I was very excited.

“For Scotland to give me this opportunity is amazing and I wanted to grab it with both hands and show that I can be what they needed.”

Nel used the three-year residency rule to good effect, uprooting from his South African homeland and moving lock, stock to Scotland, a significant upheaval for anyone let alone someone with a wife who is raising a young family far away from the usual support networks of family and friends.

Nel’s two children, Henre and Arabella Grace, were both born in Scotland. He is allowed to return home but only for holidays and any trip beyond about two weeks and World Rugby gets antsy.

As per tradition he was made to sing Flower of Scotland on the team bus just to make sure he had it off pat.

Did he feel that after three years of working at the coal face in the Pro12 with Edinburgh Rugby he has now earned the right to represent Scotland?

“That’s for the team and the people to decide,” came Nel’s response.

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“All that I can do is play every Saturday, in and out, and perform. If the coaches believe in me and, if the people out there believe in me, believe I can fill the spot, then I will take it.

“It’s a great feeling. It was three years of hard work and it was up to me to grab the opportunity.

“After the whistle I had a moment to think what a great feeling it was and what a great opportunity.”

Nel is a shoo-in for Scotland’s World Cup squad, arguably the only international-class tighthead available to the Kiwi coach although he will face sterner tests in the future.

World Rugby’s three-year residency rule is an absurd nonsense that is ruining the international game but, without it, Scotland’s national team would be struggling even more than it already is.