Edinburgh No 8 Cornell du Preez hopes the excitement of a big European night can invigorate the side out of their current slump.
For a team who have just lost six games on the bounce, the visit of a side riding high at the top of the French league would not normally be a welcome proposition, but the Scotland internationalist believes Edinburgh’s record of rising to the occasion in Europe can help them get the better of La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup quarter-final at BT Murrayfield on Friday night.
“There’s a different feeling for this because it’s something fresh, and also because it is a quarter-final,” said Du Preez. “We’ve played against some good sides in this competition and done very well.
“I don’t know if it is mind-shift thing, but we haven’t been doing very well in the league – so this could kick-start us to maybe have a good end to the PRO12 season.”
Du Preez has gone from the high of winning his first Scotland caps against England and Italy in the Six Nations to enduring disappointing losses with his club and he admits the squad are not happy with how things have gone since the turn of the year.
“It is frustrating,” he said of a losing run which was extended with a bad loss on the road at Scarlets last Friday. “I think as a whole group we find it frustrating because we know we’ve got players to do well but we just haven’t been functioning as we should.
“I think it has a lot to do with individual errors as well. We only have ourselves to blame for things like losing the ball before we have got through a couple of phases – and I think that has been costing us most. If we can get that sorted out, just think about ourselves and not the opposition so much, we could do well.”
Friday will be the latest chapter of what has been an interesting season for Du Preez, which began with him playing club rugby for Heriot’s in a bid to regain fitness and led to him gaining those caps five months after the South Africa-born forward became eligible for Scotland on the three-year residency rule.
“Last season, I pretty much played every game. I was rested for an Agen game in Europe here and that was about it,” he explained. “It was pretty tough, playing 80 minutes every week. By the end of the season I was struggling a bit with my ankle.
“When they had a look at it there was a loose bone that was there. It was a six to 12 week injury so I was struggling for fitness at the start of the season and we had a lot of loose forwards that were performing well. I wasn’t in the best of shape so I preferred going to Heriot’s to get a bit of game time instead of just running around on the back pitches here. It was better to play rugby. I was called up [to the autumn Test squad, but didn’t play].
“It would have been a bit different if I had got capped after playing for Heriot’s! You always learn from everything you go through. I was delighted to be capped [in the Six Nations] and delighted to be back playing for Edinburgh too.”
Du Preez has noticeably bulked up in the last year or so and is a different specimen from the player who took the PRO12 by storm when he arrived in 2013. He suffered a bad ankle break in the autumn of 2014 and made his comeback in the home Challenge Cup semi-final win over Dragons and he is hoping for a similar occasion to that one come Friday evening.
“I spend more time in the gym. I’ve had a bit more time for that as I wasn’t playing as much earlier in the season,” said the 26-year-old. “I’ve got targets when it comes to skin folds [measuring muscle to fat ratio]. The conditioning side of the national squad are quite strong on those things as they rightly should be. I’m not really a guy who did much gym work, even back in South Africa, so it’s quite good getting used to it now.
“Just getting the body stronger. I think gym is not only about getting bigger but also about helping prevent getting injuries. That’s one thing I’ve been quite lucky with. I’ve had that big one [the broken ankle] but apart from that I’ve not had many other injuries.”
A match against French opposition is always likely to be physical and Du Preez is relishing that this week, although he is aware that Edinburgh may not want to get into an arm wrestle with the visitors.
“I think it will be important for us to get the ball moving a bit,” he said. “We don’t have to take them on physically that much – they are big boys so we need to play around them instead of through them.”
Having got that taste of Test rugby, Du Preez admits he has half an eye on the summer tour but added: “It’s something I’ve thought about but first things first I need to play well for Edinburgh to get recognition for that. That’s my main focus personally. If that goes well, I’ll hope to get a shot.”