Nel proud to reach landmark half-century of caps
In the build-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Scotland faced Italy in Turin as they finished preparations for the tournament proper. A late Henry Pyrgos try sealed a narrow 16-12 win in a game that saw Willem Nel take to the field in dark blue to begin his international journey.
He was already a fans’ favourite at Edinburgh Rugby, with whom he had been with for some three years, but the advent of a new, explosive, quality prop forward to the national ranks drew real excitement from the Scottish rugby public.
Nel’s has been an international career that seen him play significant parts in some of Scotland’s most heady recent days, named as part of the squad for a trio of telling wins against England in 2018, 2021 and 2022.
Nel was also selected for that Rugby World Cup in 2015, shortly after his debut in Italy, and played almost all of Scotland’s gut-wrenching late quarter-final loss to Australia. He would play at the next iteration in Japan four years later and, having won his 50th cap during the Autumn Nations Series against the All Blacks, could well represent his country a third time in the sport’s marquee event.
That’s not a decision for anyone to make right now, with the small matter of Argentina to face this afternoon, but WP won’t rule it out: “I don’t know, we will see. Let’s get through Christmas and see from there. It’s still amazing to put on this jersey and perform at this level but it takes its toll on the body a bit more!”
At 36, Nel is in the winter of his career, with 176 Edinburgh appearances and that half-century of international caps under his belt. His presence in the Scotland squad – he’s known as the SquadFather – remains hugely significant to his teammates, who presented Nel with a special cap to mark his achievements in the aftermath of the narrow All Blacks loss on Sunday 13 November.
Pictured: WP Nel leading Scotland into BT Murrayfield ahead of the recent Autumn Nations Series game against New Zealand.
“I had a cap presentation, it was a bit emotional and I struggled to get my words out,” he explains. “Grant [Gilchrist] presented me with the cap, I think he’s got the nerve for these things, so yeah it was very special. It’s something I will cherish for the rest of my life.
“[The New Zeland game] was different. If I think back to that first cap to where I am now, it’s amazing and a very special day for me and my family. I’ve got so many people to thank for where I am today.
“Every game is something you take on its own, you try not to prepare differently for any game you play in, to try and not make it stressful. The process is always the same, but you know when it’s your 50th in the Thistle, and it was an amazing feeling.”
The result didn’t quite top the occasion against New Zealand, with Scotland putting in the kind of performance that afforded onlookers to dream of a first win in the fixture, only for the famous men in black to time their bounce back to perfection and take the spoils.
“It was one of those games that we let slip through our fingers,” WP admitted. “To come back after they scored two tries in the first ten minutes, leading at half-time and even coming out after that and to score more points – it’s definitely something that we will take as a team and see how we can live with the big teams and get better. It’s a massive disappointment but we’ll take a lot from it.”
The Autumn Nations Series is an uncompromising, attritional set of back-to-back international fixtures that is unique in its intensity on the rugby calendar. For 50-cap WP Nel, who head coach Gregor Townsend described in the lead-up to the All Blacks game as “running around like a youngster” in training, the unwavering passion of playing for Scotland will see him carry on for as long as he possibly can.