WP Nel says injury woes have made him mentally stronger

Scotland prop Willem Nel at Oriam ahead of the Six Nations match against Italy. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
Scotland prop Willem Nel at Oriam ahead of the Six Nations match against Italy. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
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A broken arm is not exactly fun but, as Scotland tighthead WP Nel showed off the scar on the back of his left forearm at the squad’s Oriam training base yesterday, he broke into a broad grin.

Compared to the more concerning, mystifying and hidden issues which plagued him before that fracture in November, the straightforward healing process of a broken bone was child’s play.

At the start of last year, the Edinburgh forward admits he was concerned he may never play again, or certainly not at the world-class standard he had attained, due to a recurring neck problem.

That kept him out of much of the 2016-17 season, wrecking what could well have been a Lions Test summer, and there were worries that the South Africa-born 31-year-old, who had become one of Scotland’s most crucial players, could be finished.

“It’s a front-row neck injury, so there were a lot of things running through my mind, that’s true. I wondered if I would ever come back as good as I’ve been or even better,” said Nel yesterday after being named in the Scotland team to face Italy, which will be his first start since the setback against Samoa in the autumn.

“It was just down to a good medical team. They’ve helped me a lot and we’ve overcome all the battles so far.

“There were tough times, especially with the neck thing. That was my biggest thing. The arm can happen any time but it’s been a tough two years. It’s mentally made me stronger. I’ve worked harder and I feel I’m in a better place than I was two years back, so there’s positives and there were some negatives, but it’s just looking ahead now and putting all the injuries behind me and looking at the job moving forward.”

Nel damaged his neck in a European game against Harlequins at the end of 2016. An attempted comeback against the same side in the following January lasted just 27 minutes and ended the prop’s season.

He recovered to feature in all three of Scotland’s summer tour matches and was feeling his way back to form in the new season before the arm break against Samoa at the start of the autumn series.

Nel admitted the blow had left him cursing his luck.

“When it happened probably yes,” he said. “It felt like something was going on having played ten years without injuries and just a couple of clean-ups.

“But it’s rugby. You can’t really choose when you want to get injured, it’s just what happened. It’s life and it’s what you make of it.

“Are you going to come back just to be back or are you going to come back stronger and challenge for that No 3 jersey?

“It’s been a tough season for me, so I’m glad to be back and to get another opportunity to go out there and perform for the team.”

Nel has that jersey back for Saturday’s match in Rome in what will be a 22nd cap but he accepts that the 
front-row picture has changed in the past couple of seasons. Where once there were deep worries about how the Scottish scrum could survive without him in the key tighthead roles, a number of players have come in and shown they can do a job at the highest level.

“The boys really stepped up and it’s great because it makes competition so much better,” said Nel.

“Competition brings the best out of you because you know you have to perform because there’s another guy behind you who wants to take your spot. It’s nice to see Simon [Berghan] coming through, he’s been awesome.”

Nel, who has featured off the bench in the England and Ireland games, paid tribute to Scotland forwards coach Dan McFarland, pictured left, who has overseen excellent forwards displays in this year’s Six Nations after pre-tournament 
worries about a spate of front-row injuries.

“Dan’s done a lot with us as a group, and has broken the front row up to work on our combinations,” explained Nel. “A lot of what we’ve achieved as a pack has been down to him and how he analyses the teams.

“We’ve proved a lot of people wrong, but we’ve worked hard behind the scenes so we knew the boys could step up and do a job, so it was just about them taking the opportunity. They did that and have done a good job.”

Scotland go into Saturday’s game as favourites to end with a third win out of five against an Italian side battling to avoid a whitewash, but Nel insists that the Azzurri’s reputation as a side who relish the scrum battle remains undimmed.

“Yeah, definitely, I think they are a good scrummaging side,” he said. “They will play around, they’ve got some stuff up their sleeves and it’s always like that and it will be a good challenge up front.”