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'He understands rugby mortality more than most' - Coetzee shining for Ulster

The South African was denied his shot at the World Cup but has bounced back once again with his province.

THERE WERE MANY people who felt that Marcell Coetzee simply wasn’t worth the hefty salary during his first two seasons with Ulster.

Two serious knee injuries meant the South African made only five appearances in the two years after joining in 2016 and there was a view that the Irish province needed to cut their losses.

marcell-coetzee-arrives Coetzee has been superb for Ulster over the last two seasons. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

But there was faith in Coetzee from within Ulster, an understanding that if he could get fully fit then the province would have a world-class back row forward on their hands.

Finally healthy for the start of the 2018/19 season in what was the last year of his initial three-year contract, Coetzee showed his class and Ulster opted to tie him down for another three years with a new deal in February of this year. 

Coetzee’s sublime season brought him back into the Springboks mix ahead of the World Cup only for an ankle injury to cruelly deny him his shot of featuring in Japan under Rassie Erasmus as the South Africans went on to win the tournament outright.

But back fit again for Ulster, Coetzee has very much picked up where he left off, winning turnovers, making dominant carries and hammering into tackles as Dan McFarland’s side have started their Heineken Champions Cup campaign with two wins from two.

As they get set to face Harlequins at Kingspan Stadium tomorrow, Coetzee will be a key figure again, as well as a very popular team-mate.

“He has had to overcome a lot with his knee injuries and that actually gives guys a lot of respect for him, coming from two ACLs back-to-back,” says Ulster centre Luke Marshall.

“Everyone sees how hard he has worked to get back, he has a consistency of performance which is pretty impressive and the physicality he brings as well.

marcell-coetzee-with-dan-jones-and-phil-price Coetzee gets an offload away last weekend against Scarlets. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“He is a larger-than-life character off the pitch as well, which is really quite unusual because any South Africans I have met they are a bit dour, for want of a better word – he is a bit more loud and excitable. He’s a good guy and he’s popular.”

Coetzee’s impact so far in this European campaign has been important for Ulster, with 32 carries, six defenders beaten, 28 tackles, two turnovers, and two offloads in the two games against Bath and Clermont.

McFarland has certainly enjoyed coaching the hulking South African since arriving as head coach last year.

“For a guy who is so impactful in the sense of being a star player, he wants to progress, he wants to learn,” explains the Ulster boss. “Even around things like developing jackal techniques, he would be one of the best around and yet he wants to talk to Roddy [Grant, Ulster's forwards coach] about that kind of thing.

“Ball carrying as well, you would not think there is much for him to learn, but he is keen to learn on those kind of things, he would do anything you would ask of him.

“He is a big team man, he loves that family aspect of it, as all the guys do. It probably bypasses most people – for him watching the World Cup final and watching his country win a World Cup in the full knowledge, I believe anyway, that he would have been involved in that game but for the fact that an Argentinian pushed him in the back and he got his syndesmosis injury, that must have been tough.

“I spoke to him about it and I know it was tough. And yet at no time would you have thought it affected his performances for his province and his mates during that World Cup period. That is a testament to the man.

marcell-coetzee Coetzee missed out on the World Cup. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“His mind could easily have drifted in that situation and I am sure throughout professional rugby for a lot of players who missed out on a World Cup, it would have done but it did not for him.”

McFarland believes that Coetzee’s second ACL injury, so soon after the first, could “easily have finished a lot of the guys” but feels that torrid time has also given Coetzee a real sense of hunger in how he plays now.

“It’s a testament to him and the people who supported him through his injury and the club supporting him there and in the combination of those two factors, his perseverance and his grit and his desire to come back and play for Ulster was massive and a huge determinant in that,” said McFarland.

“You can just see it in the way he plays. It is not making up for lost time, but he understands rugby mortality more than most people and he is making the most of it.”

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Murray Kinsella

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