The 32-year-old had a clean-out knee operation in the summer and, although he played a half in the second pre-season friendly against Newcastle, was given another week to get fully up to speed and missed last Friday’s 17-13 loss at Ospreys.
“Yes, he’s been training well the last couple of weeks and it’s good to have his experience,” said Cockerill of Nel.
“He’s in part of the SRU management group so we have to look after him from a national point of view. But we also manage him as an individual. He’s important.
“When he’s fit, he plays well and is as good as anyone around. It’s his first start and our scrum creaked a little bit last week so I’m hoping WP’s presence will add that bit of ballast and knowhow to that set-piece.”
Nel is one of three changes as Tom Brown comes in on the wing for Duhan van der Merwe, who picked up a head knock in Swansea, and Jamie Ritchie is in the back row as Hamish Watson’s partner is due to give birth.
Simon Berghan started at tighthead last week but will be playing for Boroughmuir tomorrow, as Murray McCallum keeps his bench spot.
“I thought Simon was a little bit short of match fitness,” said Cockerill. “He, Grant Gilchrist and Blair Kinghorn couldn’t play pre-season through the management plan.
“I thought Gilco looked fit but Simon wasn’t as match-hardened as I would like. So he’ll go and play club rugby this weekend to get minutes under his belt. Murray stays on the bench because he played well.”
Berghan will be joined by loosehead Darryl Marfo at Boroughmuir, while Magnus Bradbury turns out for Melrose as he returns from a calf strain.
“Marfo did a full pre-season but can’t get in the 23 at the moment,” explained Cockerill. “He had a big autumn last year. He got injured, was out for a few months and didn’t quite get back into the squad until towards the end of the season.
“Allan Dell has been first choice for Scotland over the summer. (Pierre) Schoeman has come in well with ball in hand and is settling in very well. There is good competition. All looseheads, including (Rory) Sutherland, will be involved if they earn their right to do so.”
Cockerill said he is a big supporter of sending his pro players out to their draft clubs when needed. “We get feedback from the coaches and all the footage from the games,” he said. “For Maggie [Bradbury], he hasn’t played a minute since the summer tour. He’s had this calf problem which he’s now over. It’s about getting Maggie minutes under his belt and knock that rustiness off.
“There are lots of guys who will play club rugby, that’s a way of getting minutes into them. I don’t see it as a punishment, I see it as a good thing and I want players to go, play for their clubs, be very committed to that and then come back into the team and squad as and when needed.
“The players are not a protected species. If they’re not involved with our squad they don’t get a weekend off. If they are fit they should be playing club rugby. I think that’s a very good way of managing players. Players need to play, because that’s what their job is and what they love doing. I think guys are capable of playing 25 games a year if they are managed properly.”
On tonight’s big match against Conference B play-off rivals, Cockerill added: “We’ve worked really hard this week, especially on ball control and set-piece, making sure we execute in the right areas.
“We need to be better across the board, especially away from home.
“We know that the Ulster crowd will be vocal and will be behind their team, so we need to control the game and field position, keeping that support as quiet as possible.”