Cape Twon - Western Province coach John Dobson didn’t pull any punches or try to manage expectations when he spoke about Ruhan Nel’s permanent switch to fifteens rugby - he reckons the Blitzbok has the ability to be one of those rare individuals who can achieve the highest honour in both codes.
“Ruhan was very good for us when we won the Currie Cup last year and he really is a special player. I have full confidence that he can be one of those players who can play for his country in both Sevens and in conventional rugby,” said Dobson when he explained Nel’s selection into his starting team for last week’s opening Currie Cup match against Free State Cheetahs.
It was a decision that required justification as Nel, although he had been with WP for most of the pre-season, was not part of the WP squad that toured France. He got married instead and went on honeymoon, and after not playing 15-man rugby since last year’s Currie Cup final, selecting him as the starting No 13 in the first competition match did seem a bold decision. Particularly as Dobson could easily have played JJ Engelbrecht at outside centre and included Sergeal Petersen or Craig Barry on the wing.
But Nel vindicated Dobson’s confidence by slotting seamlessly back into the WP team after a 10 month break, and although the wet conditions limited the scope of what Nel could contribute, he did score a good try on the stroke of halftime to effectively put Province on the path to what was ultimately a comprehensive victory.
“That is a very difficult question to answer,” laughed Nel when asked if he had suffered from FOMO (fear of missing out) when his teammates were on tour.
“I was on honeymoon. I got married as the boys were heading off. It would have been awesome to be part of the tour, but I had other things to attend to.”
Perhaps the question was phrased incorrectly. Maybe it should have been asked like this: Did you think it might disadvantage you given that the team was going straight into the Currie Cup afterwards and you hadn’t played conventional rugby since last October’s Currie Cup final?
“In the beginning I did think it might cost me. I thought it might be a setback for me not to be part of the final preparations for the season. But fortunately it appeared nothing really changed in terms of approach or game-plan when they were in France so I was able to slot in quite easily last week.”
Nel, born in Port Elizabeth but schooled at Brandwag Hoerskool in Benoni, represented the Blitzboks in the Sevens Series from 2014 through to the most recent edition of the tournament and enjoyed some notable achievements along the way. But the 27-year-old has higher ambitions that coincide with the view that Dobson has of his potential, and has now signed full-time to play for WP and the Stormers.
“Definitely in the short term my focus is just on getting back into the swing of things in 15s,” he says.
“I have signed with WP and the Stormers on a full-time basis, and I want to get a taste of Super Rugby next year. I haven’t played that level yet. The guys tell me it is a step up from Currie Cup. So I am just trying to prepare myself by converting completely to the 15s mentality. But it is my dream, as it if I am sure for every young player, to play for the Springboks.
“It is the dream of everyone to wear the green and gold, and one of the reasons I have decided to focus on 15s is because I really enjoyed the Currie Cup last year and decided I wanted more. I am looking forward to the competition and it suits me that it is being played over just one round. There is pressure but Sevens is like that. You can’t afford to drop games in Sevens, and it is nice to be involved in a competition where you know you can’t slip up. Last year we knew after we lost to the Pumas that we would play them again. This time we don’t have that luxury. We need to be on form from the off.”
Nel has of course played conventional rugby at senior provincial level before, and he played for Griquas and the Lions in the Currie Cup after serving his age-group apprenticeship first at the Pumas at under-19 level and then at the Golden Lions at under-21 level. But in terms of the professional attitude that it encourages, Sevens is very much a finishing school, so it can automatically be assumed that he is a much more mature player now than he was before 2014.
Dobson noted last year that the players who had represented the Blitzboks - he has had Seabelo Senatla and Werner Kok also play for him in addition to Nel - brought a higher level of professionalism that rubbed off positively on the other players. In the sense that they worked hard and were always eager to put in “extras” after training.
“Off the top of my head I would say that the appetite for hard work is a result of there being no hiding place in Sevens,” said Nel.
“In Sevens you have to work incredibly hard from the start, because there are fewer players in the team it is all about sacrificing for one another. When it becomes part of you for four years it is very hard to just leave that stuff behind. That was why myself and Seabelo put in extra running sessions after training. We had something left.
“But that doesn’t mean I just expect to be able to suddenly become a good 15s player. I know it will take hard work and the last thing that I expect is to just walk into the set-up. The last four years has been all about Sevens for me. Obviously last year the Currie Cup went well for me and we won it. But at this stage I am just trying to learn as much as possible.
“Starting out against the Cheetahs was tough as they were really difficult conditions. If I had a wish list I would have wanted the weather to be different. But I was happy with my performance and was fortunate to be able to just slot straight in with WP’s pre-season preparations straight after the Sevens World Cup. I had no fitness issues and if anything my honeymoon came at the right time as it was probably a good opportunity to take a break from rugby.”
It may not provide any short-term solutions as Nel clearly needs to get plenty of conventional rugby under his belt before he can be spoken of as a potential World Cup winner in the 15-man code. But Nel’s choice of position should please Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, who could do with more depth in the position that is often thought of as the most important in the defensive system.
“I do prefer outside centre. It is my favourite position. I know that it is difficult to defend at 13, but in Sevens that is the channel the opposition usually target so I am used to it, and at least in conventional rugby the players are much closer. You have another player five yards away.”
If you take last year’s Currie Cup as the starting point to Nel’s second career in the conventional code, success was very quick in coming. He has a Currie Cup winners medal to add to his collection of medals picked up for winning the Sevens Series and the many individual tournaments the Blitzboks won along the way.
It does seem that what he touches often turns to gold, or at the very least silver or bronze. Maybe he will prove to be the Bok lucky charm in time to come. He didn't get his hands on a winners medal at the recent Sevens World Cup but maybe he can make up for it by tasting success in Japan next year or France in 2023.
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