Now 32, the South Africa-born forward had enjoyed a relatively charmed run in terms of fitness during his career, gaining a reputation for backing up full 80 minutes week in, week out for Edinburgh. That ended a couple of years ago with a lingering neck problem which scuppered what had seemed solid Lions prospects, and then he suffered a broken arm in last November’s autumn Tests.
A clean-up operation on his knee during the summer has Nel back at optimum condition and, after playing almost the full second half in last Friday’s 23-13 pre-season win at Newcastle Falcons, feels raring to go for the start of the Guinness Pro14 season away at Ospreys on Friday.
“I’m looking forward to this season,” said the man who qualified for Scotland on residency grounds in 2015 and has gone on to win 22 caps.
“You don’t have a say when you get injuries, you just have to take it is part of sport. I’ve worked hard and just want to get back to where I was.”
Nel has been frustrated not to play as much a part as he would like in the Richard Cockerill renaissance so far but is now looking forward to helping push the revival on to a new level.
“The boys did really well last year and we now want to build and even get better. For me it’s about putting the building blocks in place and performing for the club,” he said while promoting Edinburgh’s partnership with Mitsubishi Motors. Nel is heading into his seventh season with the capital pro team and particularly looking forward to a return to the Heineken Champions Cup.
“The first two years I was here I played in the Heineken so I’ve had a taste of it before,” he said. “It is good to be back. That’s the level you wanted to be tested at as a rugby player.”
Having a man with the kind of front-row pedigree former England hooker Richard Cockerill boasts as the boss is viewed as a positive by Nel..
“He’s done a lot of good stuff, changed a lot of attitudes in the team and brought a new perspective,” said the prop. “The team has bought into something that was on the table. We really went for it.
“There is stuff that he has brought in this season about what he wants from the front row but it’s not long conversations about scrumming techniques. We’ve done the hard work during pre-season.”
Nel expressed sadness that the long-standing front-row trio he formed with Alasdair Dickinson and Scotland’s most-capped player, hooker Ross Ford, has come to an end with the news this summer of the loosehead’s retirement.
The three were not only the cornerstone for Edinburgh but, for a while, including the period around the 2015 World Cup, were the bedrock of the Scottish scrum.
“It was tough to hear when Dicko said he was going to retire,” said Nel. “We had a long chat. It would have been great if me, Dicko and Fordy could have played again but it is what it is. He’s an awesome pro and I learned a lot from him. It was awesome to play alongside him.
“It all clicked with the three of us and it became a well oiled machine. It was also good for the young boys to learn from us and test themselves against us in training.”
l Mitsubishi Motors is proud to support Edinburgh Rugby and welcome WP Nel as an Official Mitsubishi Motors ambassador