Former Scotland prop WP Nel has questioned whether Scotland have the psychological “edge” required to win trophies under Gregor Townsend.  

Nel retired at the end of the season, winning 61 caps for his adopted homeland while he also played more than 200 games for Edinburgh.  

Nel won most of those Scotland caps under Townsend, who succeeded Vern Cotter as Scotland head coach after the 2017 Six Nations.  

But the 38-year-old revealed he would have liked to have seen Cotter in charge at the 2019 World Cup, and questioned whether Townsend is the man to take Scotland to the next level.  

In an exclusive interview with Scotland Rugby News, he said: “I would have loved to have seen Vern still there in 2019.  

“I would have loved to have seen what he would have done with the squad that is there now. It would be interesting. 

“I don’t think that ‘edge’ is there. The attacking game is brilliant, but the ‘edge’ that Vern or Cockers [former Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill] bring is not there with Scotland.  

Vern Cotter took Scotland to the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-finalsVern Cotter took Scotland to the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals (Image: SNS)

"They need to have that edge from a coach – it doesn’t matter who it is but it is not there at the moment.” 

There was a caveat from Nel, who will return to his native South Africa next week, as he praised Townsend and his assistants Peter Horne, Pieter de Villiers and John Dalziel as “brilliant technical coaches”.  

While referencing the need for an ‘edge’ in the squad, Nel admitted Scotland have a tendency to be too easy to play against in big games.  

He felt the team had started to develop that part of their game under Cotter, who was appointed in 2014, but said it has disappeared in Townsend’s seven-year tenure.  

“I think we carried what Vern had built for two or three years, and then it all started slowly deteriorating,” he said.  

“If you look at the best teams, South Africa and Ireland, they play on that edge, but sometimes it feels like we are Scots so we want to be too honest.  

Nel pointed to the way Ireland and South Africa play the game as a lesson Scotland could learnNel pointed to the way Ireland and South Africa play the game as a lesson Scotland could learn (Image: PA)

"The teams at the top will play to the very extremes of the law. They would rather push the ref as far as they can and then bring it back, but I sometimes feel like we feel the referee will do us favours if we play him right.”  

Nel made his final appearance for Scotland in the World Cup defeat to Ireland.  

He said if Scotland can discover the missing piece of the puzzle, they have the players to win trophies. But he warned time is running out for the current group. 

“I can’t think of much that would stop them because it is a brilliant squad, but how long do they have? Maybe three years if they are lucky?  

Asked if he would want to see changes made to the Scotland coaching set-up, which came under scrutiny following a disappointing Six Nations, Nel said: “I cannot say if there should be changes because they are all brilliant coaches.” 

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He added: “I have worked with them all now for a long time and they are all brilliant and they deserve to be there, but can they maybe do something to bring somebody in to crack the whip a bit? 

Nel also said the controversial 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to Australia is the one match from his 61-cap career that he believes will stay with him long after his boots are packed away.  

"When every World Cup comes around you always have that thought of 'what if? 

"We would have had Argentina next and who knows [about reaching the World Cup final]. 

"We were not the best squad - if we compare today's squad to that squad, we were miles off - but just how we clicked, it was special."

Nel said the prospect of playing for Scotland was never discussed when he left the Cheetahs to sign for Edinburgh in 2012. 

"It was never on the table," he said. 

"When I signed, I signed for Edinburgh. When I arrived, all the chat was that I had signed as a project player. 

"I had never heard of that. I got a bit of slack that I was going to take a Scottish player's place, but I didn't know where this had come from.

"I never thought about Scotland because it was not on the radar."

While he was not born or raised in these parts, Nel is proud to have represented Scotland, but understands fans' frustrations about his pathway to international rugby. 

He added: "I can understand why people might say 'why are there not more Scots in the Scotland team'

"The motivation for me is that this country gave me an opportunity. They gave me the chance to compete against the best and I wanted to give them everything back. 

"I also looked at people like Greig Laidlaw, who wear their heart on their sleeve. You can see how passionate they are and that rubs off on you. 

Nel said former Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw inspired himNel said former Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw inspired him (Image: SNS)

"It is his country, but I can say it is my country now too.

"Does it bother me that people said it didn't mean as much? No, because I know how much it meant to me, but I can understand it."

When Nel and his wife Alana board their flight back to South Africa next week, they will do so with four children all born and raised in Scotland, and with a dozen years worth of memories of their time in the capital. 

But he wishes it was different. 

Nel said once he had decided to retire, he approached Scottish Rugby about helping coach young players, but was told there were no opportunities. 

Instead he will pursue that same ambition in his native South Africa. Nothing is finalised, but he has offers on the table. 

The veteran tighthead, who at his peak was one of Europe's premier scrummagers, said Scottish Rugby must do more to develop young players. 

"If someone told me tomorrow there's an opportunity to work with young players and bring them through, I would stay. 

"I know that is what needs to happen. We need to go out and find the next Jamie Bhatti, Rory Sutherland or Zander [Fagerson] because how long do we have left of these guys? 

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"I think these players are here in Scotland. If the structures are in place, I think we would find them.

"The opportunities are just not there. I am with the supporters when they say 'there are two or three South African and there are barely any Scottish guys'. 

"Put the structures in place and say to the supporters 'we are trying our best to develop our own players but at the moment we don't have them, so we need these [foreign] guys to fill a gap. 

"I think supporters would understand that."

Shortly before moving to Scotland a dozen years ago, Nel said he was invited to a Springboks camp only to be told he was not in their plans. 

He and Alana opted for the life-changing move to Edinburgh shortly after and have raised their four children in the city. 

Nel, who spoke emotionally in videos when he announced his retirement, at Edinburgh's end-of-season dinner, and during our chat, admits more tears are likely in the days to come. 

WP Nel bids farewell to Hive Stadium after his final appearance for EdinburghWP Nel bids farewell to Hive Stadium after his final appearance for Edinburgh (Image: SNS)

"I want to say I'll just jump on the plane, but it will be emotional," he said. 

"I have achieved a lot more than I ever thought I would but I know I've done everything I can. 

"I'll be grateful for everything."