WILLEM NEL has denied his move to Edinburgh Rugby is motivated by the lure of a potential Scotland cap.
“There was no talk like that – just about a move to Edinburgh,” the South African-born prop said.
There had been speculation surrounding his switch, some of it fuelled from within the Edinburgh camp where there is an adherence to a “project signings policy”, but the 26-year-old countered: “At this moment it is just for the club. I’m focusing on Edinburgh.”
Whether or not Nel is a hostage to fortune will become apparent in due course, but the player who comes fresh from a Super 15 campaign with a Free State Cheetahs side whose victims included Melbourne Rebels and Wellington Hurricanes, did admit: “Hopefully I’ll play international rugby one day.”
If it is the Springbok or Scottish selectors he is most keen to impress Nel isn’t saying, but he does regards his new environment as a “step into the unknown”.
While two ex-Scotland front rowers, John Allan and Matthew Proudfoot, are prominent in South African rugby circles as organiser of an ex-international veterans team and Stormers forwards coach respectively, Nel says his journey has been plotted largely in conjunction with his agent and without consulting arguably the two men with the greatest insight to the Scottish game on the Springbok beat.
However, he has one Scottish connection – as well as a unique claim to fame in the Edinburgh dressing room.
When the last British and Irish Lions toured South Africa in 2009, Nel found himself on the opposite side of the front row for the Cheetahs in Bloemfontain from Edinburgh hooker Ross Ford.
“At the end of that year I played for the Barbarians so it was very big year for me.”
The Barbarian outing in which he fulfilled the tradition of being the one uncapped player against a major touring side came at Twickenham with the All Blacks in opposition.
What’s more, the Baa-baas won 25-18 and Nel, whose victory sets him apart from others at Edinburgh, believes that could have been a pivotal 80 minutes. He said: “Possibly that is where I came to notice. Everything goes so quickly. To stand in front of the All Blacks for the haka was one of the big moments in my career. I’d never played in front of 63,000 people before. That is my highlight so far.”
If Edinburgh can achieve a couple more wins in the Heineken European Cup than was managed last season when they reached the semi-finals, Nel might have to update his honours list. However, he knows things will be very different from the Southern Hemisphere’s Super 15 competition.
“It might be slower with more scrums. It’ll be different. In Super 15 the ball goes out wide every time. Super 15 is very quick and anybody getting a turnover will possibly score a try.” Nel has arrived ostensibly to provide cover and competition for Scotland tight head Geoff Cross and there is no doubt he has received some top quality mentoring.
Current Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske is a 26-cap Springbok hooker, while ex-front row colleague Os du Randt retired after helping South Africa win the 2007 World Cup on 80 caps, then a record for the country.
“Naka was the first big influence and then Oz du Randt came along. He was my biggest influence.
“Their teaching has helped get me here and hopefully after my three years with Edinburgh I will be a better player,” says the lad from the Northern Cape town of Loeriesfontein, where his father farms sheep on a 11,000 holding.