WP Nel ‘fed up’ with training as he admits eagerness to get Scotland’s Rugby World Cup campaign under way

WP Nel
WP Nel
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He may still speak with a distinct Afrikaaner accent but four years on from his Scotland debut in the World Cup warm-up series ahead of England 2015, WP Nel no longer has any need to prove his devotion to the cause.

Gone are the days when the quietly-spoken tighthead titan had to proclaim his love for shortbread at press conferences as he has gone on to become one of his adopted nation’s most prized rugby jewels.

Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell may be the box-office headline-grabbers in the squad currently preparing for next month’s global extravaganza in Japan but, while perhaps not lighting up the highlights reels, it is a well-established appreciation that the value of a world-class talent in that specialised, some might say niche, position is priceless.

Nel, now 33, has been in Scotland for seven years and his three children have been born here. He became eligible on the residency rule in August 2015 and was first capped by Vern Cotter in the 16-12 warm-up win over Italy in Turin before starting every game in the Scots’ run to the quarter-finals.

It’s games that Nel, who has battled through some injury issues in the past four years, is craving now after seemingly endless weeks in training camp, with the first warm-up Test against France in Nice next Saturday now less than a week away.

“I’m fed up with training now. It’s time for games to come. It’s time,” said the man from Lorisfontein in the Northern Cape with his trademark succinctness.

Having had those injury concerns, the most worrying being a long-term neck injury in 2017, Nel has, though, appreciated the opportunity to build up a good block of conditioning ahead of a tournament which could cement his reputation as one of the best tightheads on the planet.

“I must say this pre-season was nice,” he said. “There was an element that was tough but you see the results from training and it is quite significant. You feel good about yourself. From my side, the pre-season went well.”

But Nel is itching to get back on the pitch and be given the chance to lock horns with French opposition, who always relish that set-piece battle which is Nel’s bread and butter.

“You know what they are going to bring, they have a big pack and want to go to the set phase,” he said. “It’s a hard pack. We will be looking at that from Monday, but we know already what they are going to bring to us as a challenge.

“The bigger they are, the harder they come to the ground. They [the French] will always be a challenge and that will always be good for us, especially with what is round the corner [come the World Cup].

“We need to challenge the best and what France can bring to the game as a pack, they are the best team to play against to see where we are.”

He may not face him directly at the Allianz Riviera Stadium on the Cote d’Azur on Saturday evening, but Nel has been following with interest the emergence of the 21-year-old, 6ft 1in, just under 20 stone French tighthead sensation Demba Bamba.

The Brive prop was man of the match on his fourth cap when France beat Scotland in Paris during this year’s Six Nations.

“I was injured the last time we played them but I have watched him,” said Nel. “What can you say? He’s a big man and he’s going to bring a lot to the game but there are certain areas where we can challenge him as well.

“That is where you, as a player, grow, to find the edges, the weaknesses of the other guy. There are edges you can test him on, let’s see. We can challenge him, it’s the pack as a whole, not just one individual but the whole pack that will bring challenges for us.”

Nel believes there is always a balance in forward exchanges between talent and tonnage.

“There is a bit of both, you need some technique, especially since it has changed a bit in the scrum just before the World Cup,” said Nel, referring to World Rugby’s latest law amendment which affects the binding and setting phase at scrumtime.

“That’s the first thing we must sort out between us and the ref, to see what the refs want from us.

“If we can sort that out, we can do the next thing but it’s good to have these games coming up to see what the refs want us to do in the scrums and then, as a pack, develop.”

Nel is fairly comfortable that the amendment, which, as all scrum geeks will know, has been introduced to “reduce the ‘axial’ or rotational load on front-row players on engagement”, is not a major one.

“Not really,” he shrugged. “It’s not so much about the angles more about the weight on the head, there was a lot of weight head to head of the props. Let’s see how the refs ref it.”

These warm-up Tests always come with a slightly ephemeral feel when compared to those just past in the Six Nations and to come in Japan. The spectre of untimely injury is ever-looming but many players are also bursting to impress and secure a spot on the plane.

Nel takes a more simplistic view and believes the players will just be relishing the chance to cut loose in a full-blown game after a long, hard post-season.

“There is always the element that you want to win. You want to be confident going into the World Cup,” said Nel. “We need the win on the board but we need to see what’s on the pitch as well, what works for us and what doesn’t work for us, especially these last four weeks before the World Cup to get the fine tuning in there and make sure we are the best we can be when we get there.”

Versatility is a buzzword when it comes to selecting squads for World Cups as coaches seek to cover bases for all circumstances. Nel, however, is a player very much in the bona- fide specialist category. “I would prefer the number three on my back,” he said with a smile.

“I would [play loosehead] if I had to but let’s keep the number three on my back.”