Scotland World Cup squad member reveals how Gregor Townsend talked him out of retirement
The Edinburgh prop went to the 2015 and 2019 tournaments and will now be among the oldest players at the showpiece in France. Nel has won 57 caps for Scotland and has displayed his ongoing ability to compete at Test level when starting in strong away performances against England and France this year.
The South Africa-born tighthead – who is likely to play second fiddle to Zander Fagerson at the World Cup – has no solid plans to retire any time soon.
“I don’t know, there will come a time when the body will say ‘enough is enough’ but at this moment to go through a pre-season like I’ve done, the body still feels good enough,” he said.
“If I was to ask my wife, she would probably say ‘right, after the World Cup you are done’ because the family make massive sacrifices, but body-wise I’m happy to go on.
“I don’t know how the future will look but as long as the body goes and feels good, why stop? The body can easily just stop, so to be able to do what I love to do, to compete against the best at this age, is definitely something I’m proud of.
“When I got the call to say I was in the World Cup squad, I needed to pinch myself. Just the achievement, that the body is still able to keep going, for me it is a massive honour to go to a third World Cup.”
Nel has contemplated retirement in the past and has even had chats with head coach Gregor Townsend about his future in the national team after worrying about whether he could still bring something to the party.
“The biggest one was in 2016 when I had my neck injury,” he said, recalling previous occasions where he was ready to call it quits. “That was a big scare for me. I thought ‘that’s probably it’. But after that, not really.
“In the last couple of years there were a couple of times when I maybe wasn’t involved as much and I went to Gregor and said ‘listen, I think it’s time (to retire from Scotland)’ because I felt there were younger boys who needed the exposure, but he said ‘no, there’s still a lot from you to come in a Scotland jersey’.
“It’s just a case of getting your head round it and realising ‘right, I’m still good enough’.”
Nel qualified for Scotland on residency grounds three years after joining Edinburgh from Cheetahs in his homeland in 2012. He will find himself up against his birth country in his team’s first pool match of the tournament when the Scots face South Africa in Marseille on Sunday week.
Nel insisted he never had any boyhood dreams of representing the Springboks and now considers himself as “passionate” about Scotland as any of his team-mates.
“Honestly, if I look back, as a young boy I never watched rugby,” he explained.
“I started playing rugby when I was 14. When I got the opportunity to come to Edinburgh, it was awesome to get to know the Scottish people.
“When I got the first call-up in 2015 to be part of the Scottish squad, you had Greig Laidlaw and (Stuart) Hoggy and all of those guys and it was so easy to get caught up with the passion the Scottish people and the players have. It overflows.
“The passion I have for Scotland at this moment is probably more than I would have back home. Me and the family are talking constantly about what’s next after I finish playing rugby and we definitely see ourselves staying in Scotland for the future.”
Nel believes the current Scotland side – ranked fifth in the world – is the most vibrant he has been involved in.
“Every team I’ve been part of has had different strengths but this team is definitely the most exciting team to be part of,” he said. “There’s so much versatility in this team. From my eyes, to be part of this squad and see the younger boys performing and what they can bring to the game, it’s exciting.
“If we can bring our game and we are all on it, it’s going to be an exciting World Cup for us.”
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