WP Nel: Best Foot Forward
Age is a factor in professional sport but when it comes to rugby’s front-row, a player’s expected shelf-life can be longer than most.
33 year-old Willem ‘WP’ Nel is a player in his prime. The tighthead prop is held in high esteem by coaches and his fellow players thanks to his skill, work ethic and quiet confidence.
He’s earned 30 caps for Scotland and is a club centurion at Edinburgh, having become a firm fan favourite along the way. Nel might be one of the more senior players in the Scotland squad, but ‘retirement’ isn’t a word in his current vocabulary.
“At my age you start thinking about life after rugby but you don’t want to think about it too much or get distracted,” he said. “As long as you’re still playing, you want to focus as much as you can on the rugby.”
Nel is one of 31 players selected to travel to Japan as one of Gregor Townsend's Scotland squad for Rugby World Cup 2019. He already has a world cup under his belt, having been part of the Scotland squad that reached the quarter-finals four years ago in England. He says that the competition doesn’t allow for lapses in performance.
“Every team brings their 31 best players and if you lose one game in your pool you can be eliminated,” he said. “There’s a pressure that comes with the rugby because you know you have to produce your best rugby every time you go out as there are no second chances.
“What the world cup does is bring out the best of you because you can’t just go there and think ‘today I’m going to go through the motions’, you need to be on the button every time.”
Nel was also part of the squad that travelled to Japan in 2016 for the summer tour, so he has some idea of what to expect.
“We have had a little bit of a taster of Japan so we know what’s coming,” he said, “it’s a different culture, different people and different players.
“It’s going to be tough but I think it’s going to be fun as well.”
Nel moved to Scotland from South Africa in 2012, having signed a three-year deal with Edinburgh. Known for his ferocious scrummaging and abrasive ball carrying, he quickly became a mainstay in the capital side’s front-row. He qualified for Scotland through residency and wore the thistle for the first time in August 2015 in the world cup warm-up game against Italy in Turin.
Nel had enjoyed a successful professional career in South Africa with the Free State Cheetahs, including playing a starring role in the club’s journey to the Currie Cup final in 2009. His performances led to selection that year for a game against the British & Irish Lions (which the Cheetahs narrowly lost 24-26), before going on to start as the only non-capped player in the Barbarians’ win over the All Blacks at Twickenham (25-18).
So what made Nel up sticks and move 8,000 miles north?
“All I knew about really from Edinburgh was Ross Ford, who I played against when we played the Lions, so for me it was probably just a new challenge, something different,” he said. “It was a massive opportunity to go and see what was out there for my rugby career.”
Nel says that he received a warm welcome from the players when he joined Edinburgh, but there were some challenges to overcome.
“The tough bit was you are an outsider,” he said, “you come in and there will be one or two supporters who say ‘you’re taking a Scottish guy’s place.’
“So I had to prove that I was there to make a difference and to try and share experience with the younger guys and try and win over some supporters.”
Nel’s commitment to club and country has been more than proven and since he first arrived with his wife in Edinburgh their family has expanded, with their three children being born in Scotland.
Nel’s family life has grown since 2012 and he says his rugby has changed as well, as he adapted to a northern hemisphere style of playing.
“In Super Rugby the set-piece is not focused on as much and when I came to Scotland I found it was totally different, the set-piece is the massive focal point so I had to change a lot,” he said.
“Luckily I had players like Ross Ford and Alasdair Dickinson and good coaches around me to help me along.”
Nel’s reputation has grown and while it’s his role in the pack that earns most praise he also has a few international points to his name, scoring his first try off the bench in the RWC15 victory over USA in Leeds, and adding another to that tally against Japan in Toyota in 2016.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing and a neck injury prevented Nel’s involvement in the 2017 Six Nations and the potential chance of a place on the British & Irish Lions tour. He returned for Scotland’s Summer Tour in 2017 and started in Scotland’s opening Autumn Test that year against Samoa, but suffered a broken arm in that game which kept him out of action until the new year.
“I think my neck injury was the toughest because there was so much at stake with the Lions tour and everything, it was almost like a needle right in the heart,” he said.
“What it did for me was enable me to take step back and re-assess whether or not I wanted to keep playing.
“For me it was about keeping my head down, working hard and seeing if I could get to where I was before.”
Recovered from injury, Nel returned to the Scotland squad in time for the 2018 Six Nations, coming off the bench at BT Murrayfield against England in Scotland’s historic Calcutta Cup win and in Dublin. He was awarded with a start in Scotland’s final match of their campaign, taking a win in Rome. He featured in all four of Scotland’s 2018 Autumn Tests and three 2019 Guinness Six Nations matches, including the draw against England at Twickenham.
Nel is often named as a role model to other forwards in the Scotland camp and it’s clearly a position he enjoys. He was also recently announced as a specialist coach for the Watsonians’ Super6 side. He says that he’s taken on the coaching role in part to explore whether or not the transition from player to coach is something he’d want to take forward in the future. Regardless of what future direction Nel’s career takes, he thinks it’s important to share his technical knowledge with the players around him.
“I think especially at this time in my career it’s important to give as much knowledge as I can,” he said. “It could be tomorrow that you’re done or it could be two more years so as long as you are involved, it’s important to share your knowledge.
“If there’s a little bit other players can take away that will hopefully help them in their careers.”