Scotland head coach Vern Cotter has expressed concern over the fitness of one of the country’s most important players, Edinburgh tighthead prop WP Nel, and admitted he was a serious doubt for the upcoming Six Nations.
Nel was named yesterday in Cotter’s 37-man squad for the tournament, which starts at home to Ireland on February 4, but it is clear that the forward is struggling after his comeback for Edinburgh against Harlequins at the weekend lasted only 27 minutes. It was initially reported that the South Africa-born prop was undergoing Head Injury Assessment protocols but Cotter confirmed yesterday that there had been an exacerbation of the neck injury which had kept him out since October.
“I think [the head knock] has aggravated the injury he had before,” said Cotter. “That’s something that needs to be examined. I can’t comment until the specialists have had a look.
“There was the concussion protocol but they have been looking at the images and there are concerns among the medical staff. The doc wants to have a closer look with the specialists and we will know a lot more when he has done that.
“It was more that he had aggravated any neck problem he had previously.”
Cotter said that Nel was having a further scan last night and added: “We’ll get an idea whether if not he’s available for the competition, there is a doubt about him.
“I will wait until we have professional advice on it. Of course there are concerns. I would like to know more, but there are concerns.”
With loosehead Alasdair Dickinson already out of the opening stages of the tournament at least, it means Cotter faces the unwelcome prospect of heading into that Ireland crunch at BT Murrayfield without either of his first-choice props.
Nel has become one of Scotland’s key men in recent years since qualifying to play for his adopted homeland on the three-year residency rule. The 30-year-old has excelled in the specialist and highly-valued role of tighthead, amassing 15 Scotland caps since his debut against Italy in a World Cup warm-up game in 2015 and emerging into a leading contender for a Test start in this summer’s British and Irish Lions’ tour to New Zealand.
When Nel was ruled out of the autumn Test series after hurting his neck in the home European game against Harlequins last year, he was initially sidelined for four weeks but that turned into more than two months. A continuing neck problem is, naturally, deeply worrying for a prop forward and supporters of Edinburgh and Scottish rugby will be hoping that Nel can make a swift recovery.
The doubt over the first-choice No.3’s availability has prompted Cotter to beef up his tighthead options, with Simon Berghan of Edinburgh and Jon Welsh of Newcastle Falcons included in the squad for the competition which will be the New Zealander’s swansong as Scotland coach before he departs for Montpellier at the end of the season and is replaced by Gregor Townsend.
The inclusion marks an incredible promotion for the 26-year-old New Zealand-born Berghan, who arrived at Edinburgh in 2014 but then played most of the season at club level for Boroughmuir.
The 6ft 3in tighthead, who qualifies for Scotland through a grandfather from Stirling, has received more game time for Edinburgh this season, due to Nel’s injury woes, and Cotter said: “I remember in my first year, when we went away to the United States [in summer 2014], he came and trained with us.
“We’ve been waiting for him to come through and this will be an opportunity. He can get some specialist coaching with [forwards coach] Jonathan Humphreys and that will be good for him. We could very well need him.”
Former Edinburgh centre Matt Scott, who was omitted from the autumn Test series, returns after scoring 12 tries in 18 games for his new club Gloucester this season, and will hope to add to his 36 caps while Duncan Taylor of Saracens also returns to the midfield group after recovering from injury.
Edinburgh stand-off Duncan Weir is also back after missing the November series, with Glasgow’s Peter Horne injured, and Capital lock Ben Toolis, who won his solitary Scotland cap in the 2015 Six Nations, returns to the squad.
Cornell du Preez, the South Africa-born Edinburgh back-rower who qualified for Scotland in September and was involved in the autumn series training group without being capped, is also selected.
Forwards: Alex Allan (Glasgow); Simon Berghan (Edinburgh); Allan Dell (Edinburgh); Zander Fagerson (Glasgow); Willem Nel (Edinburgh); Gordon Reid (Glasgow); Jon Welsh (Newcastle); Fraser Brown (Glasgow); Ross Ford (Edinburgh); Stuart McInally (Edinburgh); Jonny Gray (Glasgow); Richie Gray (Toulouse); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh); Tim Swinson (Glasgow); Ben Toolis (Edinburgh); John Barclay (Scarlets); Cornell Du Preez (Edinburgh); John Hardie (Edinburgh); Rob Harley (Glasgow); Josh Strauss (Glasgow); Hamish Watson (Edinburgh); Ryan Wilson (Glasgow).
Backs: Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester, c); Ali Price (Glasgow); Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow); Finn Russell (Glasgow); Duncan Weir (Edinburgh); Mark Bennett (Glasgow); Alex Dunbar (Glasgow); Huw Jones (Stormers); Matt Scott (Gloucester); Duncan Taylor (Saracens); Stuart Hogg (Glasgow); Damien Hoyland (Edinburgh); Sean Maitland (Saracens); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow); Tim Visser (Harlequins).