Gavin Rich - SuperSport.com
Cape Town - It seems odd to talk about Ruhan Nel as an uncapped player at Super Rugby level when he has already toured with the Springboks, but that is nonetheless the reality for the former Blitzbok star as the Stormers prepare for their competition opener against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
Nel has excelled at Currie Cup level for Western Province, and after being part of the great win over the Sharks in the Durban domestic final in 2017, last year he followed up with a succession of promising performances that earned him a call-up to the national squad from SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
He didn't get onto the field, or into a match-day squad, so he is uncapped at international level too, but Erasmus clearly has a plan for him or he wouldn't have been included in the group. He gained invaluable insight on what it is like to play for the Springboks by being part of the camp in 2018, and Saturday's match will be an important step towards staking a claim for a place at the World Cup in Japan.
Nel though has told SuperSport.com he is not thinking that far ahead, and just wants to settle at Super Rugby level first. He is primed to do so, because he has just completed his first full pre-season with the Stormers after making the decision to specialise in the conventional code, and that has helped him fill out physically to meet the requirements of playing in the midfield in the conventional game.
"It's been good. This was my first proper Super Rugby off-season, and I have taken confidence from that. My body is not moving quite like it was, but I had to pick up a bit as you need to if you want to play outside centre at Super Rugby level," said Nel during a break in training at the Stormers' base at the WP High Performance Centre in Bellville.
"I haven't put on too much. In my last Sevens tournament with the Blitzboks I weighed in at 98 kilogrammes. I am now 101 kilogrammes. So I have gained three kilogrammes. But hopefully it will be enough to make a difference."
Nel was outstanding in the Stormers' big win over the Boland Cavaliers last weekend and on that evidence his partnership with Damian de Allende packs a lot of potential. If the Stormers pack can live up to its credentials and transform the strength on paper into on-field dominance, many an opposing midfield is going to struggle to contain them.
"I am obviously very excited to play alongside Damian. As you know he is the current Bok No 12, and any outside centre would want to have the Bok inside centre playing with him. It is very calming. We did play a few games together in last year's Currie Cup, and also we trained a lot together on the end-of-year Bok tour. So we know each other well."
As it so happens, Nel will be playing his first Super Rugby game against someone else he got to know well on the November tour - Bulls and Bok first choice No 13 Jesse Kriel. He reckons Kriel is the perfect person to be marking in his first game as he sets the benchmark for South African outside centres.
"I trained a lot against him on the end-of-year tour so I suppose I got to know him well that way. He is a very talented centre and he knows his job well. It is a big challenge but at the same time a good one to be making your Super Rugby debut against the Bok incumbent," said Nel.
Having played in the marathon extended time domestic semi-final against the Blue Bulls at Newlands last October, Nel knows that the Loftus game is going to be particularly tough.
"I still remember that game like yesterday. It went to the 100th minute. There was a lot of emotion in their performance and I suppose there always will be in a north/south derby. I suppose it will be the same in any South African derby. Derbies are something to look forward to, particularly with the Marvel theme that will be in place this year."
Although he did not play in the game, Nel reckons the Stormers can take some confidence from their victory over the Bulls the first time they wore the Marvel-themed jersey, which was against the Bulls on Superhero Sunday at Cape Town Stadium a fortnight ago.
"I thought it was a great achievement to beat the Bulls in that game as we fielded a young team and they brought down a good team for the match. They had a lot of experienced players," says Nel.
"I think the guys who played in that game showed us what we can do if we click on the day."
Clicking on the day is Nel's primary focus now. He reckons if the Stormers do that, then it will be the start of the journey to the ultimate goal, which is winning the competition.
"Every team that plays wants to win the competition, and that is the aim, but we need to take it game by game," he said. "Super Rugby is a long competition and you mustn't get ahead of yourselves. I think though that we are in a good place regarding injuries and we have a lot of depth this year so we are going out with the aim to win it."
If the Stormers do go far in the competition it will naturally increase the chances of someone like Nel getting into the World Cup squad.
"At this stage if you start to focus on things like the World Cup it would be the wrong approach. That would particularly be the case in my first season of Super Rugby. Coach Rassie will have his plans in place, we just have to go out and ensure we play our best rugby."
And that is the same approach he has to combating the off-field noise that has been created over the uncertainty over the future of former Stormers assistant coach Paul Treu, which in turn has been the catalyst for a battle of power been the amateur and professional arms of the WP union.
"At the end of the day there will be 23 guys going to Loftus and they have to do the thing," said Nel. "The better we do on the field the better for the union as a whole. Personally I find it is best not to get involved in off the field stuff."
Warrick Gelant, 14 Johnny Kotze, 13 Jessie Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal,
11 Rosko Specman, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Embrose Papier, 8 Duane
Vermeulen, 7 Hanro Liebenberg, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 Lood de Jager
(captain), 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Lizo
Substitutes: 16 Corniel Els, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18
Dayan van der Westhuizen, 19 Eli Snyman, 20 Thembelani Bholi, 21 Ivan
van Zyl, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Dylan Sage
15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 JJ Engelbrecht, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Damian de
Allende, 11 SP Marais, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Sikhumbuzo
Notshe, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 JD
Schickerling, 4 Salmaan Moerat, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Ali
Substitutes: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Corne Fourie, 18
Neethling Fouche, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Kobus van Dyk, 21 Herschel
Jantjies, 22 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 23 Dan du Plessis
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