WILLEM Nel had waited a long time for another crack at Saracens. Nine seasons, in fact, since his Edinburgh team were hammered home and away – 45-0 then 40-7 – by the London club.
So when the chance came to exact a measure of revenge for those defeats, the veteran prop was determined to take it. He did that all right, emerging as one of the key performers in his team’s 21-18 Challenge Cup triumph on Saturday at the StoneX Stadium.
The very early signs may not have been promising, as Saracens twice opted to scrum a penalty, sure that Mako Vunipola would give them the edge in the set piece. But Nel soon got the upper hand over his opposite number in the scrum, and was just as influential in the loose.
In fact in the end, although Vunipola had his fair share of carries as Saracens tried to steamroller Edinburgh, Nel outshone the England international in open play as well, scoring one of his team’s two tries on the way to victory in the Pool C match. And he contributed his fair share in defence, too, as Edinburgh held on at the death to secure the narrow win.
Just a few months shy of his 36th birthday, Nel may not be able to perform automaton-like at the top of his game week after week after week. But this game showed that he can still be a vital influence in matches, and unsurprisingly, he was in ebullient form afterwards.
“One of the things that we probably still need to sort out as a team is how to close out the game,” he said. “But f***ing hell boys, it was brilliant.
“It was just something that really clicked together and we’ll take that result. It was obviously right up there. The boys worked hard for each other and in the end we deserved what came to us. It was brilliant.”
Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist are the only survivors in the Edinburgh side from that double defeat in the 2012-13 season, when Saracens played their home games at Vicarage Road rather than the Stonex. But while the venue had changed, as far as Nel was concerned the fact that his team were playing Saracens away was enough to evoke memories of that visit to Watford.
“When we came here I was thinking about the first time I played here, nine years ago,” he added. “It was white outside, they had leaf-blowers to blow away the snow, and we lost – I think we took 45 points or something.”
Rain had replaced the snow on Saturday, ensuring that the match was never going to be a spectacle of free-flowing rugby. But it was one that will live long in the memory, nonetheless, above all for the way in which Edinburgh hit back almost immediately on the three occasions that Saracens went ahead.
Emiliano Boffelli was again a vital contributor with 11 points from three penalties and a conversion, while his fellow-Argentinian Ramiro Moyano scored the visitors’ first try. The self-belief and sense of adventure shared by the two Pumas is a natural fit for the style of play introduced by head coach Mike Blair, who with a free weekend coming up will give his team some time off in the coming days before they focus on the double-header against Glasgow on 27 December and 2 January.
“With the bye week this week it’s great, because it allows us to freshen up a little bit,” Blair said. “But we need to be at a stage where we’re still kind of hardened and ready for that Glasgow game. Glasgow have Exeter on Saturday, so they’ll be hardened and ready to go, and we need to be the same.”
Blair believes that his injury list will be somewhat shorter by the time he selects a squad for the first 1872 Cup match at Scotstoun, and Darcy Graham and Jamie Ritchie are among those who could come back into contention. But the growing depth of his squad is there for all to see, and whoever is selected, Edinburgh are sure to head west in confident mood.
“There are a few that are definitely shorter term that we hope and would expect to be back,” the coach added. “But I’m really proud of the way that the guys have stepped in and taken the opportunities they’ve had. So fingers crossed we’ll have some back, but at the same time I’m really pleased with the balance of the squad that we’ve got at the moment and the ability to step up.”