Les Kiss fears worst as Ulster waits to learn Coetzee fate
With just four Ulster games under his belt, Marcell Coetzee will find out today just how long he will be stuck on the sidelines.
The big-name summer addition had his Kingspan Stadium debut delayed until February thanks to an ACL injury picked up in his native South Africa last April, and Ulster now fear he suffered a similar issue against Zebre last time out.
He will go under the knife for the second time in 12 months today with the province bracing themselves for bad news.
Severe swelling delayed surgery on an injury suffered on March 11 until this week, and Les Kiss admitted that in a worst-case scenario it could be nearing 2018 before the man who has already become a firm fan favourite pulls on the white jersey again.
"Marcell saw the surgeon on Monday and the swelling is down so he's going to have that (today)," said the Director of Rugby.
"It's exploratory. The word from the surgeon is that we'll find out the true extent of the injury after that.
"There's cartilage damage but we just don't know if it's that which is restricting the movement or if it's something else.
"I can't be any clearer than that, but worst-case scenario it's the ACL (again)."
If that were the case, Coetzee could be absent until Christmas and feature in just four games during the first half of his three-year deal.
While there is still a chance the damage is not so severe, Kiss seemed to believe it likely that Coetzee will have to endure a second serious injury in the space of 11 months.
"I'm only guessing to tell you the truth but the best case would be it's just cartilage and it'll be five or six weeks," he said. "But there's obviously some damage there.
"It's quite sore and he's in a brace. We've got to wait to get to that point where we have clarity."
Coetzee's debut against Edinburgh last month sparked a run of five consecutive league victories - Ulster will aim to make it six in a row against Newport Gwent Dragons on Friday night (7.35pm kick-off) - and they have moved into the play-off spots for the first time since Christmas.
But with a testing run-in to come between now and their concluding fixture against Leinster on May 6, the side will need to maintain that consistency if they are to book a place in the semi-finals.
In the absence of Coetzee, Kiss knows others will need to step up.
"Down the chain we've had some good responses," he said. "Clive Ross has been an unsung hero. He just puts in good performances.
"Sean (Reidy) and Chris (Henry) have really combined well. Marcell definitely gave it an edge and a balance but we don't have that now.
"We've got Hendy (Iain Henderson) back who can play lock and back-row so we'll have to just work with those options.
"It's not ideal but that's what it is."
Ulster will at least be bolstered by the majority of their international contingent following the conclusion of the Six Nations.
Kiss said that all of Jared Payne, Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson would be available for the visit to the PRO12's 10th-placed side, with only Rory Best being held back after Irish endeavours.
Stuart McCloskey and Darren Cave have recovered from respective calf and concussion problems, although it seems as if Louis Ludik will need at least another week.
And given their record away to Friday's opponents, the side are likely to need all the reinforcements they can get.
Since drawing the Dragons in the 2003-04 Heineken Cup, Ulster have visited Newport 14 times, losing nine of the ties.
All of this is despite the fact that in the same span the region have finished above them in the final PRO12 standings only three times.
Just why Ulster struggle so much at Rodney Parade when they so often arrive with a far superior team has been something of an enduring mystery.
"We know our record there hasn't been good and it's been a struggle at times," added Kiss.
"We have to embrace that challenge, the fact that we haven't done well there. We have to get on top of why we haven't been able to do well there.
"We can lament what hasn't been or approach it that this is a chance to change that.
"Last year, it was my first game actually, we got over the line just from defending for the last seven or eight minutes and Rory Best got the final turnover to get us the money.
"It's not an easy place to play. They're a team that have a lot of pride there.
"It's Rodney Parade, it's Friday night and we've got to be excited about that.
"It won't be easy because they're a tough team. They're a team that just hang in and if you're not clinical, they'll come back at you.
"They can really cause you trouble and we have to be on top of our game.
"It could be just the challenge we need. It won't be an ideal place to be, a boisterous crowd who'll certainly let the ref know what they think is right."