Cornell Du Preez in the frame to make his first Scotland start
JK Rowling's support for the Scotland rugby team is well known and, as Cornell du Preez reflected this week on winning his first cap, a quote by her famous character Albus Dumbledore sprang to mind '“ 'happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times'.
Du Preez’s big moment came at a dark time as he was thrown on to replace a concussed Ryan Wilson in the second half amid the chaos of that calamitous 61-21 loss to a rampant England.
If you were to visualise the perfect international debut then this would categorically not be it but the 25-year-old No.8 revealed that, perhaps alone in the Scottish contingent at Twickenham, he couldn’t help but feel a warm glow last Saturday evening.
“The result was tough to take but sometimes you get your first international cap in unusual circumstances,” he said. “It was still a very proud moment for me to get on and get that cap.
“We had an after-match function and the SRU president [Rob Flockhart] presented the cap and the tie you get as well. It was nice.”
It has not been the smoothest of journeys to full international honours for the Port Elizabeth-born forward who represented South Africa at the 2011 Under-20 World Cup before leaving the Southern Kings to join Edinburgh two years later.
Most ‘project players’ are capped as soon as they become eligible through the controversial three-year residency rule, which could be set for an extension to five years, but a combination of factors meant that Du Preez has had to wait five months since fulfilling the criteria.
A battle to get back to full fitness and the fact that back-row is an area Scotland can boast rich resources when everyone is fit meant that, while Du Preez has been integrated into the Scotland squad, he has had to be patient.
Wilson’s head knock at the weekend, for which he is undergoing the concussion protocols, looked a bad one and there is every chance that Du Preez will start on Saturday and hope for a more memorable occasion against Italy at BT Murrayfield.
Du Preez made an instant impression when he joined Edinburgh almost four years ago with a string of man-of-the-match performances in his first season before everything came to a shuddering halt in October 2014 with a serious broken ankle.
He was back playing within six months but the consequences continue to be felt. For a long period at Edinburgh he was effectively in a routine of play-rest-play, with minimal training in between. A further operation was required and a new quest for full fitness, which included games for Heriot’s earlier this season, embarked upon.
“It was tough when [the broken ankle] happened and I did well to get back and had a good season last season, getting into the PRO12 Dream Team,” he said.
“I had another clear out of my ankle at the end of last season and I was struggling to get back to form for a long time. It has been a long time coming and I am just glad to be here.
“I was always confident I would come back.”
Du Preez became eligible for what he describes as “my adopted country” last September but was left out of head coach Vern Cotter’s autumn Tests squad.
“Vern has always spoken to me,” he said. “He has always had a plan. Initially he brought me in to get to know the boys and the way they played. The boys who were playing were playing very well and I was fortunate to get in [to the Six Nations squad] through injuries. I am just trying to do my best at the moment.”
Du Preez now hopes to play a part in helping Scotland to finish their Six Nations off on a high with a win over Italy and push for as high a placing as possible in the final standings.
“We expect them to come at us at the scrum and lineout where they can dominate,” he said. “They seem to do well in all their games in that area. We need to disrupt them as best we can and play our rugby as we have a good attacking game.
“They have a good maul but we have plans in place from previous weeks. We got mauled against England. We know how to stop mauls. We just need to work on our plays and it should be okay.”
Du Preez is relishing the chance to lock horns once again with Italy talisman Sergio Parisse, who he came up against for Edinburgh against Stade Francais earlier in the season, and said: “He is a very talented ball player. A lot revolves round him in the Italian team so we have to shut him down. We have plans in place so we will see how it goes at the weekend.
“Parisse is a big part of their game but we cannot just focus on the one guy. We have plans to disrupt him as much as we can but he could always surprise us at the weekend as he is a top player.
“I felt I got on good against him when we played in the Challenge Cup. He is a guy I watched growing up. He is very skilful. It is a joy to watch him play.
“He is one of the best back row players in the world, especially in a team that has not always done well yet he has always been a stand out performer. It shows how good he actually is.”
Du Preez has played plenty of times at Murrayfield but admitted that, if selected by Cotter today, a full house on a Six Nations Saturday will be a big change from those Friday nights with Edinburgh.
He said: “It will feel completely different this time. It will probably feel like it is the first time I have been there! I am very excited.”