South African back row sets sights on improving Edinburgh

South African Cornell du Preez has made his home at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford
South African Cornell du Preez has made his home at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WHAT is the collective noun for a group of mean, muckle South African rugby forwards?

An “enforcement” of players covers it pretty well and that is what Edinburgh now boasts after some frantic recruitment by new South African head coach Alan Solomons. Not quite enough to conduct the lineout calls in Afrikaans but certainly enough to stiffen the sinews and make Edinburgh a decent shout to nose past Gloucester at Murrayfield this afternoon.

If Tim Visser, the only true Dutchman, is excluded from the equation, the burly prop WP Nel and Isak van der Westhuizen, who locks the scrum, were the first pair to arrive. Wiccus Baauw and Cornell du Preez pitched up in the front and back row more recently, hotfoot from the Southern Kings Super Rugby franchise that Solomons was unable to save from relegation.

The coach moved north to Edinburgh and obviously brought favourites with him including flanker Du Preez, whom he dubbed “the complete package”. Four tries and two man-of-the-match performances in his six starts to date has done nothing to change the coach’s mind, as he explains.

“In my opinion Cornell is international class, I have no doubt and people here in Scotland have seen that already. He is outstanding, with a good all-round game. His defence is sound but so too are his attacking skills with the ball in hand. His catch-pass and hand-eye coordination are excellent and he can play right across the back row at six, seven or eight. Quite simply he is an outstanding prospect.”

The question remains why such an outstanding prospect should abandon his long-held aspiration of playing for the Springboks and instead commit to Scotland, as Du Preez has done. He insists that he would be proud to play in blue should the opportunity arise, but isn’t 22 a tad early to be ditching your childhood dreams?

“In South Africa it’s very difficult to get in,” says the young breakaway by way of an answer. “Especially with the loose forwards they have now. They are playing very well at the moment and there are also guys who are injured and coming back. I think it’s a better opportunity to play international rugby coming over here. I don’t think about that [playing for Scotland] at the moment. I’m just worried about Edinburgh. There is still a long way to go.”

Du Preez could say the same about his club. After suffering four losses in their first five outings, Edinburgh are turning some sort of corner, although whether it is at Sebastian Vettel’s pace or that of an ocean-going oil tanker has yet to be seen. Going into this afternoon’s Heineken fixture against Gloucester they have lost two and won three of their last five matches, but those victories have come against some of the bottom fishers of the RaboDirect Pro12 – Treviso, Zebre and Connacht.

But a win is a win is a win, and the up-tick in Edinburgh’s fortunes may have something to do with the arrival of Du Preez. His first match was that Heineken victory over Munster but the return of one or two others has helped, as the South African is quick to concede.

Ross Rennie in particular made a welcome return from injury against Zebre at the beginning of November and the back-row trio of him, David Denton at No.8 and Du Preez on the blindside has a balanced look about it. Denton the carrier and Rennie the scavenger, which leaves the South African to pick up the rest of the pieces – and he does that pretty well. He is aggressive in defence, accurate in attack and he has that happy knack of being in the right place at the right time, which is one reason he has contributed four tries so far.

“Lately, in the last season, I got a few tries [in South Africa],” says Du Preez. “Maybe it’s just luck coming my way or being in the right spot at the right time. It just happens.”

Should Visser, the league’s perennial top try scorer, be looking over his shoulder?

“Tim is obviously injured now. He would probably be scoring the tries if he was fit. If the opportunity comes you take it.

“I’m definitely enjoying it. The more ball you have in hand, the more people see you. I’ve had a lot of ball to play with – sometimes people just look at what you do with the ball, not without it. Maybe that’s the reason but I’m trying to focus on stuff off the ball as well.”

Interestingly, the Afrikaner says that he understands Visser’s Dutch – provided the big winger speaks more slowly than he sprints – and Du Preez is quickly coming to terms with other aspects of rugby in Scotland. The weather proved something of a shock to him, which is hardly surprising, given that South Africans play barefoot until they are into their teens. But, otherwise, rugby is rugby the world over.

“It’s very similar, actually. It’s just a bit slower. The physicality is the same as Super Rugby. It hasn’t been too hard to adjust coming from where I’ve played before.”

So what is Edinburgh’s goal going forward?

“I think just to gain respect from the public again, and to gain supporters especially. We aren’t anything without our supporters so that’s the main thing, to gain respect and be feared by the other teams. It’s about how we perform as a team.

“You can get individual efforts from other teams that are amazing and you end up losing the game but, as long as our performance is accurate and we can look at the review on Monday and say we actually played very well, then I think we’ll be happy.

“It was them [the coaches] that got me here. I know what they want to do and what they want to achieve. They’ve already shown a difference in our defence. The structure that he [Solomons] has put in place for us to play is very simple – the more simple you make rugby the better it is.”

In justifying the influx of outsiders, coach Solomons insists that it will be easier to introduce young, homegrown talent into a successful, winning side than one that is struggling.

Whatever the perception of the coach’s foreign policy, at least in Du Preez Edinburgh have picked up an international-class flanker rather than yet another journeyman, as Gloucester should confirm this afternoon.