The experienced prop will make his first Scotland start since the 2019 World Cup after being called in to replace the banned Zander Fagerson for Sunday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with Ireland.
Fagerson has been suspended for four games for his illegal clear out on Wales’ Wyn Jones last month, meaning Nel is back in Townsend’s starting line-up for the first time since the Scots bowed out to hosts Japan 18 months ago.
The Scotland coach believes tightheads improve with age and thinks Nel’s wiliness will be key in the scrum battle against a streetwise Irish side.
“I think he’s in great physical condition just now,” Townsend said of the Edinburgh man. “There was a game in the autumn against Scarlets when he had to come on after 5-10 minutes after having trained with us during the week, and he got man of the match. Getting the man of the match at 35 years old is going some.
“But there’s a lot more to come from WP. When you play tighthead prop age becomes something that helps you because you come across various looseheads and types of scrums that you know how to scrum against. But you’ve got to make sure that you look after yourself physically and keep performing at the highest level, and WP is doing that.
“He trains at a high level, and he loves his scrum sessions. He gets to 95 to 100 per cent of his match speed in almost every session.
“So as much as we’ll miss not having Zander, who’s been outstanding over the last couple of seasons and brings so much to our forward pack, having WP there - and Simon Berghan, who’s been in really good form – gives us two very good replacements.”
Berghan is on the bench against Ireland and is likely to see action in the second half. Cover on the other side of the scrum for loosehead Rory Sutherland is provided by Jamie Bhatti, with the Bath prop also among the replacements at BT Murrayfield.