#RWC2019: ‘If you’d said I’d be here three years ago I’d have laughed’ – WP Nel

Tight-head prop feared career was over when neck injury sidelined him for 2016-17 season but is now back and a key man in Scotland's World Cup push

WP Nel
WP Nel thought his career might be over three years ago. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
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DAVID BARNES in TOKYO

NEWS that David Denton has been forced to retire from rugby due to concussion was bound to resonate throughout the Scotland squad who are currently in Japan for the World Cup, with the vast majority of the group former team-mates of the stricken 29-year-old. 

With some, however, it hit closer to home than others. For WP Nel, it really hit a nerve, given that just over three years ago he was contemplating a very similar outcome – having missed the entirety of the 2016-17 international season due to a serious neck injury, which he feared at the time could end his career.

“If you’d said I’d be here [at a World Cup] two or three years ago I’d probably have laughed,” said the 33-year-old South African-born tight-head prop. “It’s made every little bit of hard work and everything you put into getting fit again worth it. I’m fortunate to be here.”


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Asked how he thought his old Edinburgh and Scotland compatriot would cope with the premature end to his rugby career, Nel backed Denton to take it all in his stride.

“I think it’s a journey and you need the right people around you,” he said. “With my injury, a lot of things went through my mind and you’re thinking: ‘I’ve got a young family and what am I going to do after rugby’. That was the hardest part, but as you go on through that journey, speak to other people who have also struggled, and get a bit of inspiration, it basically becomes easier to get your head around.

“I was able to get a good environment, my family around me, and got myself into a good space again.

“I think David said that he did work at the beginning of his time out of the game with the emotional side of it and he made peace with the decision – knowing that he’s not going to come back, not going to pull his boots on again.

“He was an amazing player. He did a lot for Edinburgh and when he pulled the thistle on, he was amazing. He had worked hard to get back to his best playing condition, he came on tour last summer and was back to his best, so it’s definitely not pleasing to see that happen because he’s still young.”

World rankings mean nothing

While there is clearly plenty of sympathy there, Nel doesn’t have much time to sit still contemplating the fleeting nature of modern professional rugby. A date with destiny is looming over the horizon for Scotland, and Nel is almost certainly going to be the man charged with anchoring the scrum against Ireland on Sunday.

“I’m a strong believer that we don’t play rugby on ranking – it’s on the day, and anything can happen,” he said, when asked if Ireland’s lofty status as the world’s top ranked international team could have bearing on the match.

“Obviously they are an experienced pack, good forwards, and it’s going to be a challenge. But we play them in the PRO14, we play them in the 6 Nations, we play so much we basically know each other. We have a good pack too, and we need to show what we have.”

“What we need to focus on is us, what we can do on the field, and not so much of the opposition. Of course, you must analyse them and know what they are doing but it’s up to us what we show to people when we’re on the field.”

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David Denton retires at 29 on medical grounds

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David Barnes
About David Barnes 1530 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.