WP Nel admits it is “pleasing” to be so widely tipped as the potential starting tighthead for the British and Irish Lions next summer but is characteristically coy about the prospect.
The Loeriesfontein-born 30-year-old will make his 100th appearance for Edinburgh against Leinster at BT Murrayfield this evening and strikes you as the kind of guy who doesn’t look far beyond the next scrum – a brutal domain where he has worked his way to the top of the food chain as one of the most admired No. 3s in world rugby.
“I can’t think about that,” said Nel when asked about the Lions speculations. “For Edinburgh you must be on top of your game to qualify for that.
“There are so many good props. For me the focus is to be on top of my game like last season and put in the performances on the park.”
Nel now has 15 Scotland caps to his name and, like a Duracell bunny, just seems to keep on keeping on, week after week, often remaining on the field for the whole 80 minutes.
There aren’t many of those prospective Lions XVs that have been published recently by leading rugby journalists and former pros that haven’t included Nel in the front row but the former Cheetahs man said: “It is just words. There is still a year to go. There is a lot of stuff going on before that. It is pleasing to see that but you have to keep your performances up and, hopefully in the end, it will be a great honour.”
Nel’s current deal is up at the end of this season and he is likely to be a man in demand but he said there has been “no chat at this moment” surrounding his future: “I am just concentrating on this season,” he added.
The first thing to concentrate on is tonight’s crunch home game with Leinster, who have brought Jack McGrath and Sean Cronin back into their front row to join Mike Ross and have generally beefed up the team that lost to Glasgow last weekend.
There is a milestone in the Irish ranks too as skipper Isa Nacewa makes his 150th appearance for the province.
“That is a different side,” said Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons of tonight’s opponents. “First of all, it is a different side generally but specifically, when something goes wrong that level of experience in your side makes a huge difference.
“That is a bloody good pack of forwards. McGrath, Cronin are there, Mike Ross is there, [Devon] Toner is there, [Jamie] Heaslip is there, that is virtually the Irish pack of forwards.”
Solomons also paid tribute to Nel and said he didn’t think the Lions talk would be any distraction at all. “I don’t think WP is the type of guy who will let that affect him,” said the coach.
“He’s chuffed to bits to be given the opportunity to play for Scotland and takes tremendous pride in that. He’s given a good account of himself in the Scottish jersey.
“I think he’s focused on playing well each week. He’s in a good frame of mind, a good place. Even in the modern era when we do play a lot more games, 100 caps [for Edinburgh] is still a wonderful achievement. He is vital as a player. Tighthead prop is a very important position, we all know that. He’s good around the park and a good athlete. He applies himself and is a good pro.
“I think he’s been invaluable for Edinburgh and I think since he’s been playing for Scotland he has been invaluable for the national team.”
Solomons makes just three changes, one of them positional from the team who beat Scarlets 20-9 last weekend. Flanker John Hardie is ruled out with concussion and is replaced by Hamish Watson, with Viliami Fihaki coming in at No.8 and Magnus Bradbury moving to blindside in place of the rested Jamie Ritchie.
“I think you need a measure of consistency, particularly at this point in the season, when the boys did well and got a good result at the weekend,” said Solomons.
“So on the back of that you can see the side staying largely the same.
“John hasn’t completed his return to play, so Hamish comes in his place; and Jamie is a young guy with a young family, who has played four back-to-back games, he took a bit of a knock to his neck in Tuesday’s practice session, and I think a rotation there is merited.”
Edinburgh: Glenn Bryce, Michael Allen, Sasa Tofilau, Phil Burleigh, Tom Brown, Duncan Weir, Nathan Fowles, Rory Sutherland, Ross Ford, WP Nel, Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist (c), Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson, Viliami Fihaki. Subs: Stuart McInally, Allan Dell, Kevin Bryce, Fraser McKenzie, Cornell Du Preez, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Solomoni Rasolea, Blair Kinghorn.