Last chance for Nel to display his outstanding form this season

Dylan Nel takes the ball to ground as Freedom Vahaakolo watches at an Otago training session at...
Dylan Nel takes the ball to ground as Freedom Vahaakolo watches at an Otago training session at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Wednesday. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Dylan Nel always joked he would hit a run of form for Otago the minute he signed offshore.

It turned out to be no joke.

The No8 has been among the team’s best in this year’s NPC.

Last Friday, in Rotorua, that reached a peak as he starred in a 24-13 win over Northland.

He carried strongly and provided much of the go-forward in the early stages as the team shot out to a 17-0 lead.

Then, when Otago was pinned in its own territory for much of the second half, Nel made the bulk of his 22 tackles.

It was arguably the standout individual display of the season.

But it is something he will only get to do once more.

Tonight’s game against Canterbury at Forsyth Barr Stadium will be his last, for now at least.

The 28-year-old leaves for Tokyo on Thursday to take up a contract with Mitsubishi Dynaboars.

He had initially been set to finish the season, before the lockdown break extended it beyond his departure date.

It will leave Otago with a big hole to fill at the back of the scrum.

Indeed, Nel’s form has been such that it would not be a surprise if Super Rugby teams were taking a closer look — or at least if circumstances had been different.

"I think, with my announcement in Japan, that exited a bit of [the Super Rugby talk]," Nel said.

"I always said I bet this is going to happen — I’m going to sign in Japan then I have a good season for Otago and something will happen with Super. But I’ve got to think about financial issues and make sure I’m sorted for next year."

Dunedin will remain home, though, for the South African native who has lived in New Zealand for seven years.

He was looking forward to getting to Tokyo, although admitted he would need to use his two weeks in quarantine to brush up on his Japanese.

Nel has excelled in his core roles of ball carrying and tackling for Otago.

But it is the extras — a few timely breakdown steals, an opportunistic try — that have really helped him take another step.

"That’s just doing my job and then doing it well enough that you can start looking at other options.

"In South Africa, I was a seven, so I enjoy the breakdown. At this higher level, you’ve got to pick your moments. If I can do my job, then somehow get in the right moments, I can get over the ball."

He is not thinking beyond tonight for now, though.

Canterbury was where he originally played in New Zealand so he knows its game well.

It gave the game a little extra meaning, too, he said.

Nel has never played in a winning Otago team against Canterbury.

That was something he would like to do before he leaves, but he knows it poses a tough challenge.

"They hold the ball for a number of phases, they keep to their structure very well.

"I don’t think we can button off at all in the game. We’ve just got to keep to our tempo and our play, hold the ball and play smart rugby and obviously bring the physicality which we’ve shown in the last two games."

Otago has named a settled line-up. Josh Hohneck comes in to start at loosehead prop in an otherwise unchanged starting XV.

James Lentjes leads the team in his 50th match for Otago.

NPC, FB Stadium, tonight 7.05pm

Otago: Sam Gilbert, Freedom Vahaakolo, Sio Tomkinson, Ray Nu’u, Vilimoni Koroi, Josh Ioane, Kayne Hammington, Dylan Nel, James Lentjes (captain), Sam Fischli, Josh Dickson, Will Tucker, Jermaine Ainsley, Ricky Jackson, Josh Hohneck. Reserves: Liam Coltman, Abraham Pole, Tau Koloamatangi, Josh Hill, Christian Lio-Willie, James Arscott, Matt Faddes, Viliami Fine.

Canterbury: Chay Fihaki, Waisake Naholo, Isaiah Punivai, Dallas McLeod, Manasa Mataele, Jack Debreczeni, Jono Kitto, Henry Stowers, Mitch Gibson, Reed Princep, Sam Darry, Luke Romano, Oli Jager, Brodie McAlister, Daniel Lienert- Brown. Reserves: Shilo Klein, Finlay Brewis, Fletcher Newell, Hamish Dalzell, Sam Dickson, Luke Donaldson, Fergus Burke, Rameka Poihipi.


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