Thursday 19 September 2019

Springbok Coetzee ready to roam wild once more

Marcell Coetzee established a game farm while recuperating in South Africa. Photo: Sportsfile
Marcell Coetzee established a game farm while recuperating in South Africa. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

When Marcell Coetzee was replaced towards the end of the home match against Connacht in October, his team may have suffered a humbling first Belfast reverse in 58 years, but, to the South African, merely emerging unscathed must have seemed like a personal victory.

He may not have immediately recognised the individual milestone amidst the dressing-room despair but as his aching bones pleasantly soothed, its significance would have been hugely encouraging.

By making it past the hour mark, before being replaced, he had already managed to compile, in just two short, hectic months, more games and minutes on the field than he had in his previous two seasons at the club.

For a player more renowned for breaking down, he now shows little sign of slowing down.

That game against Connacht marked his fifth of the campaign; in two injury-plagued seasons beforehand, he had only managed five.

When Sean Reidy clapped his hand to indicate the changeover, Coetzee had surpassed 291 minutes for the season; significant again, for he had only managed 290 in the two previous campaigns.

And as Ulster seek to back up last week's stunning Scarlets coup by completing the double to advance their last-eight Champions Cup claims, the 28-times capped Springbok appreciates the value of every added minute.

"I am just happy playing again," says the 27-year-old. "You miss being part of such big games because you know what is on the line.

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"Just being part of a victory like that last week is really humbling and you cherish every moment of that. Hopefully we can back it up this weekend."

Since signing for the province in early 2016, his career in this country has been ravaged by catastrophe; perhaps now there is a chink of light as he approaches the darkest day of the year.

Shortly after penning his deal, he did his ACL while playing with the Sharks which curtailed his debut campaign.

Then, just 52 minutes into his second, he smashed his left knee and underwent surgery which marked the 2016/17 season down as a write-off. It seemed he might soon be a cast-off.

Mental

His determination has driven him though, so too an admirably placid mental approach; he established a game farm while recuperating at home.

One day he knew he would roam free once more, too.

"Marcell has been through a very, very long period where not only was it physically very difficult for him in recuperation, but also mentally difficult and he has been a warrior for us this season," explains Ulster head coach Dan McFarland, after naming the same side that scored a bonus-point win last Friday in West Wales.

Coetzee may have downplayed his try-scoring appearance - "My dog could have scored it!" - but his immense presence at the base of the scrum typified a steeliness not always evident within the Ulster eight.

"In the two years it was really, really tough mentally. Rehabbing and just trying to do the jersey justice.

"You arrive here and play a couple of games and then you are sidelined, but just taking this season in particular, it has been really good working with Dan and the management and then the players as well.

"You kind of feed off the synergy they bring to the team.

"You try to attack all the areas you can control and give your best for the team."

There may be a sense that the player now owes fidelity to the club who stood patiently by him but this is a World Cup year which may complicate matters.

McFarland wouldn't be drawn on the player's future and Coetzee is coy.

"When the time comes we will sit down and weigh the options, but at the moment I am just trying to focus on the weekend and us getting a good result."

Rassie Erasmus would be foolish to ignore his claims. But for now Coetzee has unfinished business with the club who stood by him in such tough times.

Perpignan : J Farnoux ; E Sau, A Cocagi, A Taumoepeau, T Fainga'anuku ; P Jackson, T Ecochard ; Q Walcker, M Leiataua, Y Boutemmani ; T Labouteley, Y Vivalda; E Shahn, P Reynaud, K Chateau.

Replacements: C Deligny, K Tougne, N Lemaire, J Van Heerden, A Brazo, S Degmache, E Selponi, J Bousquet.

Connacht: D Leader; C Kelleher, K Joyce, D Horwitz, M Healy; C Fitzgerald, J Mitchell; P McCabe, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy; J Cannon, G Thornbury, S O'Brien, J Connolly, R Copeland.

Replacements: T McCartney, M Burke, C Carey, J Maksymiw, E Masterson, C Blade, J Carty, K Godwin.

Referee: Ian Tempest (England).

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