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'Just when you think you have got it, a simple mistake like that can come back to you'

Marcell Coetzee hailed Ulster team-mate Jacob Stockdale after a priceless away win in their opening Champions Cup game.

Ulster's Marcell Coetzee celebrates after the game.
Ulster's Marcell Coetzee celebrates after the game.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

HE THOUGHT HIS 79th-minute turnover had the game won for Ulster at The Rec. Or, at least, his celebration suggested he thought he had.

So for Marcell Coetzee to be sitting two days later praising a herculean defensive effort from team-mate Jacob Stockdale that salvaged the victory over Bath in the dying stages proves just how close Ulster came to throwing away a precious away win in Europe.

“Just when you think you have got it, a simple mistake like that can come back to you. I think it is very important to always be switched on, you know? Never let your guard down. I think on that occasion our defence was tested,” says the Springbok back rower.

“Thank goodness for Jacob for making that great read, otherwise it would have been another picture sitting here.”

It was only down to Stockdale’s last-gasp interception that Ulster came away with the win last Saturday, the Ireland winger recovering superbly to chase down Zach Mercer and intercept the No.8′s pass that would have certainly set Semesa Rokodoguni over in the corner to snatch the four points for Stuart Hooper’s side with the clock well in the red.

The winger’s intervention perhaps masks and puts rose-tinted glasses on what could have very easily been a disappointing day at The Rec for Dan McFarland’s men, but at the end of the day, the standings have no pictures. Ulster have four points on the board in Pool Three of the Champions Cup and, more importantly, a priceless away win in their opening game.

It wasn’t perfect, not by any means, as an eye-watering 16 turnovers suggests, and the game could have been won a lot earlier had John Cooney held the ball when set through by Rob Herring. Basic errors continue to dog this team in the early part of the season, although they are yet to be severely punished for them.

But there were no shortage of positives to be had from the game, too, namely another excellent display from the Ulster pack and scrum in particular, especially given they lost Jack McGrath and Sam Carter inside the first 20 minutes, while their defence – which made 167 tackles and conceded just the one try – was phenomenal.

“When you play a team away at their home ground you have to front up, and taking Bath’s pack, they were really physical, giving it to us, they came up hard off the line, really closing the space and how we wanted to play our game plan,” adds Coetzee.

“Fair play to them, they did well on that aspect and I can see that in the sore bodies that are out there today.”

Of course, leading from the front, as always, was Coetzee himself, who has done nothing but underline how essential he is to Ulster’s success early this season. It was notable that he was missing in the defeat to Munster a week prior, and it was he who was one of the key difference makers in Bath, leading the team in carries (19), defenders beaten (4) and tackles (17) in another all-action performance.

It looked like he had been the game-winner too when he made that massive turnover with only a few seconds left on the clock, only for Herring to throw crooked at the following line-out, but that vital steal at the breakdown was the icing on top of the cake for the busy flanker in his personal battle with England phenom Sam Underhill.

Indeed, the pair had dueled all game on the floor, Underhill posing his usual disruptive presence across the pitch but being met on every occasion by 114kg worth of South African to nullify his effectiveness. It was a testament to how well Coetzee played that, for the most part, the World Cup runner-up was generally quiet throughout.

When pressed on the breakdown battle, and how good he is at it, Coetzee explains: “It is one of those things that the more you practice the more emphasis you put on it, the more it is going to become second nature for you. You can have small triggers in your mind as to when or not to do it.

jacob-stockdale-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle-with-louis-ludik Jacob Stockdale celebrates at the final whistle with Louis Ludik. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I think that comes down again to the guy next to you, making that chop or making a good offensive tackle for you to make that decision. As much as you get rewarded for stealing the ball, you have to compliment the guy who did the job prior to that.

“The emphasis of the team at the moment is to work for each other and create opportunities for the guy next to you. Then you kind of get a rhythm to it as to when to go in or not. That is the biggest challenge to it, when is the right moment.”

Such have been his exceptional displays for Ulster, it led to the Potchefstroom native being recalled to the Springbok squad prior to the World Cup by Rassie Erasmus, and had he not been struck by yet another frustrating injury, there was a chance he could have been in Tokyo. Indeed, he could have returned to Ireland with a medal around his neck.

Instead, having shipped an ankle injury against Argentina in a warm-up match, he was left to watch the game in the Europa Hotel in Belfast alongside team-mate John Cooney and Ireland and Ulster legend Willie John McBride in an event for the charity Wooden Spoon.

Was there any bitterness watching on when, in another world, he maybe could have been playing in that final against England?

“I think it is a bit of mixed feelings,” he admits truthfully, before adding: “But at the same time you are so happy for your friends. They had worked so hard as a team the squad as a whole in the past few years.

“I was so proud for the nation. The bigger picture at the end of the day was that it was massive for South Africa and for me as an individual, I have to put my pride in my pocket and say well done guys. I just cheered them all the way towards the final and glad they brought it home for South Africa, there is great positivity and hope now back in the nation that was lacking a bit.”

Matters switch back to the present, however, and given the size of the challenge – both literally and figuratively – that faces Ulster tomorrow night when Clermont Auvergne come calling to Kingspan Stadium, they will need Coetzee to be at his destructive best against two similarly devastating back rowers.

Ulster are painfully aware of the danger Fijian ace Peceli Yato provides given he scored last time he was in Belfast – the first try in that 39-32 thriller – while No.8 Fritz Lee is just as big a ball carrier and just as dangerous a threat around the whitewash – two players who will command respect any time they are on the ball.

Of course, to limit talking about two of Clermont’s players as their only threats is doing them a disservice. Franck Azema’s side have threats littered across the park, from bulldozing prop Rabah Slimani to half-back duo Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez, and the fleet-footed Alivereti Raka and Damian Penaud in the back three.

Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, the talk is that this has to be Clermont’s year given the quality of their squad, how short they have fallen of expectations in previous years and the likely absence of Saracens from the equation. How Ulster would love to disrupt that as early as the second pool game – though Coetzee knows that will be no easy task.

“For a team that plays a high tempo game, once they get their confidence up they have a great offloading tempo game, with dangerous ball carriers all over the park. That’s why I keep emphasising about our defensive system,” warns the 28-year-old.

“As good as it was against Bath, I think we really need to step it up against this team because they pose a whole new other threat. And as I mentioned dangerous carriers all over the park, so yes we just have to do our homework.”

He adds, in similar vein to what head coach McFarland said after the win in Bath: “I think we did let ourselves down very much in attack (against Bath) and going into this weekend we really want to create some great opportunities. Not just for the forwards but for the backs as well. We have got dangerous strike runners and we want to get them to the game.”

Of course, given they have that precious away win under their own belts, another win for Ulster would put them in a commanding position to reach the quarter-finals themselves, while the confidence boost of beating one of the tournament favourites would be massive for the province as well.

Not that Coetzee is entertaining any thoughts of the knockouts just yet.

“Nah, nah, nah,” he says with a small chuckle. “All emphasis is to take it game by game, week by week, you know? Every team poses known threats. Look, we are far away from the play-offs you know so we are not in a boat to argue like that. We really want to just grow as a team and as this tournament progresses we want to grow.

“I think the biggest emphasis this weekend is now getting our attacking mindset and looking forward to the challenge that awaits us. And just fronting up.”

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