WP Nel has given his all to Scottish rugby – first with Edinburgh, then the national team – since moving here from his native South Africa in 2012. At 34, and in the final year of his current contract, he knows that retirement is not too far away.
But the tighthead prop is also sure that he still has a lot to give to the game. And, as he prepares to play his 150th game for Edinburgh against Glasgow at Scotstoun tomorrow night, the only question is whether that will be as a player or as a coach.
There was a time when he was regularly the subject of interest from French and English clubs – Willem Nel overtures, let’s call them. Tighthead tends to be the most highly-paid position in France, and there is little doubt that he could have increased his salary considerably by crossing the channel. Yet he stayed loyal, and earlier this week, while not entirely discounting the possibility of an extra year somewhere else, he hinted that ending his playing career here was the likeliest option.
“Look, I just don’t know if anyone wants to look at me any more,” he said when asked if he was thinking of leaving or planned to see out his career in the capital. “But I’m happy where I am, my family’s happy, so let’s see what the future brings.
“I feel pretty good, but if it comes to retirement I’d be pretty happy as well. I’ve done a lot but I still feel as if I have a lot to give. So time will tell.
“I would love to work with the younger generation, and to bring them through. If there’s some way I can work with them I’d love that, but I would also love to play another year so let’s see what the next step is for me.
“I was helping at Watsonians before lockdown, and I’m trying to work with the younger boys at Edinburgh at the moment, just doing the odd thing here and there and giving them some pointers. The aim for me is to give back to the younger players so that they can hopefully make them better players.”
Capped 40 times by Scotland after moving here from South Africa in 2012, Nel added that he was likely to stay in this country after retirement in any case. “You really miss your extended family: it’s not easy to be away from them. But then Scotland’s also done a lot for me and I’ve fallen in love with this place.
“My family’s happy, and the kids are starting in school now. Scotland’s all that they know, so it will come down to a family decision. I’m quite happy either way – although we’ll probably end up staying in Scotland, because my wife is very happy here.”
It would be easy to contrast Nel’s loyalty to his adoptive country with the decision by another South African, Duhan van der Merwe, to head for England at the first opportunity. Both men had to qualify for Scotland on residence, but while the prop is still here more than five years after making his international debut, the winger’s decision to leave Edinburgh for Worcester in the summer came just weeks after he won his first cap for Gregor Townsend‘s side.
Yet Nel sympathises with his team-mate, and insisted that Van der Merwe’s personal situation was entirely different from his own. “Listen, it’s a tough environment, it’s tough out there. Everyone can make their own decisions. I’m happy that I’ve got my family here, but Duhan and his girlfriend are obviously in a different situation.
“Everyone has to make their own decisions and it comes down to the individual. It’s not up to me to ask Duhan why he’s moving, it’s up to how the person feels. If he feels that the Premiership is the next step for him to become a better player then that’s what works best for him.”
Van der Merwe will clearly be a significant loss for Edinburgh, and Nel will be sorely missed too whenever he does hang up his boots. Given the player’s own willingness to play on for another season after this one, it will probably be up to Richard Cockerill whether he gets a chance to do so, and perhaps the Edinburgh coach offered a hint about his thoughts on the subject when asked this week which position he would be willing to pay the most money for.
“Two most important positions,” he said. “Tighthead and reserve tighthead.”