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Springbok Marcell Coetzee deal sets out a new era for Ulster

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 12/02/2016

Running man: Ulster’s new signing Marcell Coetzee on the attack for South Africa against Australia in Perth
Running man: Ulster’s new signing Marcell Coetzee on the attack for South Africa against Australia in Perth

Ulster have confirmed that Springbok star Marcell Coetzee will be joining the province next season.

A three-year deal was originally revealed in Wednesday's Belfast Telegraph and the 28-times capped South African will move to Kingspan at the conclusion of the Sharks' upcoming Super Rugby campaign to replace the Cardiff-bound number 8 Nick Williams.

For a side who have already added All Black back-three talent Charles Piutau to their ranks for next season, it is another transfer coup for team manager Bryn Cunningham in his efforts to develop a squad capable of ending a silverware drought that stretches back to the 2006 Celtic League title.

Perhaps of most interest to Ulster fans, however, will be the age-profile of the new signing.

No fading southern hemisphere star looking to pick up a last pay cheque in Europe, Coetzee is just 24-years-old and, like Piutau, has agreed to move to Belfast as a current international entering the prime seasons of his career.

A regular part of the Springbok set-up in recent campaigns, Coetzee missed the World Cup only after sustaining a knee injury in an August Rugby Championship loss to Argentina and was a try-scorer when then coach Heyneke Meyer's side were defeated by Ireland on their last visit to Dublin.

Taking the place of the popular Williams, there is a fearlessness to the way Coetzee approaches the game - perhaps it is no surprise that he cites Braveheart as his favourite film - that will go down well with his new fanbase.

With the return to fitness of star forward Iain Henderson, who thanks to an unfortunate run of injuries has featured for his province just 12 times since the beginning of last season, also to come Les Kiss's pack could have a wholly new complexion next year with Coetzee able to play right across the back-row.

While the Sharks yesterday released a statement saying they understood Coetzee's decision given the "huge salaries on offer in Europe", it will surely have been a wrench to leave an organisation with which he has such strong ties and who he captained in last night's friendly with Toulouse.

He attended school at Port Natal - one of the few remaining Afrikaans speaking institutions in the area - and is very much a local product despite being born in Potchefstroom.

Like many of his new South African team mates at Ulster however, he will hope to find Belfast something of a home away from home.

Having married his long-term girlfriend, Chanelle Smit (pictured), just over a year ago, he possesses a strong religious conviction that is similar to many of his compatriots already at Kingspan.

"It is a major coup for us to sign a player of Marcell's quality and experience," enthused Kiss.

"His age profile, positional versatility, leadership ability and character were some of the key ingredients as to why he was such an important target for us.

"He has played most of his international rugby between 6 and 7, but he has also played a huge amount at number 8, where we feel he could have a big impact for Ulster.

"That versatility is absolutely vital for us, as not only can Marcell be hugely effective across the three positions, but this can also accommodate the development of a number of our home-grown Irish-qualified players.

"Being appointed as the Sharks' vice-captain for the season shows that even at the young age of 24, Marcell has undoubted leadership ability. On the park, with his skilled and aggressive approach, he clearly leads from the front."

Praising the work of Cunningham, Kiss says he is excited to work with Coetzee and Piutau next year, as well as other new signings Connacht prop Rodney Ah You and young Harlequins lock Kieran Treadwell.

"Bryn has done a marvellous job in securing the services of such a talented player and I look forward to working with him," Kiss said.

Cunningham, who worked on the deal for a matter of months, is thrilled to have tempted the player into opting out of the final year of his deal with his current side, and away from other clubs.

"To attract someone of Marcell's stature is a real statement of intent on our behalf," said the member of Ulster's 1999 European Cup winning squad.

"We have very high aspirations of what we want to achieve over the next two to three years and, as a result, we are trying to build a squad capable of being extremely competitive in both the Guinness PRO12 and in Europe.

"At 24, we believe his best years are still ahead of him, which is hugely exciting and shows the commitment Marcell has given to Ulster Rugby. I know that this was an incredibly difficult decision for him to make with the attachment he has to the Sharks, not to mention the high level of interest from other clubs."

Coetzee is treading a well-worn path with current squad members Ruan Pienaar, Wiehahn Herbst, Louis Ludik and Franco van der Merwe all having represented the Sharks in the past, while former imports such as Johann Muller, Robbie Kempson, BJ Botha and Stefan Terblanche also had ties to the Durban-based outfit.

Cunningham added: "It is evident that he has all the key character attributes to fit into our culture seamlessly and have a massively positive impact on our environment."

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