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Ulster fear Coetzee's season is over after Bowe agony

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster hope to be told today that Marcell Coetzee's first season in Belfast isn't over after just four games.

Having arrived with an ACL injury, the Springbok had to wait until February for his debut but has since made a huge impact for his new side and quickly became a fans' favourite.

The all-action back-rower looks set to miss yet more crucial games, however, after having to depart the win over Zebre on Saturday with a knee complaint that was scanned yesterday.

While Ulster have said the injury is not to the same knee the 25-year-old damaged last April, the Kingspan outfit will still be holding their breath as they wait on news of their big name import's prognosis.

On average, a mild ligament strain to the knee takes between three to six weeks to heal, but should the scan reveal any more extensive damage his season would have to be in doubt.

The province's last game of the campaign, should they not maintain their position in the top four reclaimed over the weekend, is currently scheduled to be against inter-pro rivals and league leaders Leinster eight weeks from now.

If the injury were to linger any longer, it could also have implications for Coetzee's future international involvement.

South Africa have this month announced that, after July 1, those playing abroad must have amassed over 30 caps if they are to continue to represent the Springboks.

Thanks to his run of injuries, Coetzee still sits on 28 and would need to feature in a three-Test series with France in June to hit the quota before the ruling comes into force.

Unlike the likes of New Zealand, who jettisoned Coetzee's fellow Ulster ace Charles Piutau once he moved to the northern hemisphere, South Africa have previously selected their European-based players for Test duty.

In the past, Ulster have had to do without Springbok Ruan Pienaar for much of the early season thanks to his involvement in the Rugby Championship and autumn internationals.

Meanwhile, Ireland yesterday would not put a time frame on Tommy Bowe's return to action but confirmed that the Ulster winger had sustained a suspected fracture of his left leg.

Bowe was seeing the surgeon yesterday and it seems unlikely he will play again this season.

The Monaghan man came off the bench against Wales in Cardiff on Friday night to make a 69th international appearance but lasted only a matter of moments before picking up the injury. Carted off with a rueful look, it is only the latest in a series of unfortunate incidents for the two-time Lions tourist.

Having returned to Ulster from a spell with Ospreys in 2012, he has since suffered two serious knee problems as well as groin, hamstring and hand injuries.

He played only one game in 12 months having been injured at the 2015 World Cup but had fought his way back into the Ireland reckoning to appear twice in this Six Nations campaign.

Leinster's Fergus McFadden, with just four games under his belt this season, has been called into the Ireland squad as a replacement as they prepare to face England in Dublin in the final round of the Six Nations.

While England have already won the title, they are aiming for history in the shape of a second consecutive Grand Slam and record 19th straight win.

Their hosts did, however, get some good news on the injury front yesterday.

Conor Murray, who departed early in the second half of Friday night's contest with a shoulder injury, should start. The Munster nine sustained the blow in the first half but was kept on until shorty after the turn.

While confirming Murray would be fit for Saturday, team manager Paul Dean defended Ireland's decision to leave him on as long as they did.

"He's responded well to treatment," he said.

"You have to give the player every opportunity to continue and Conor is such a good guy, such a valuable asset to us that we needed to allow him to stay on as long as possible to try to overcome it.

"As it happened, he wasn't comfortable enough to continue so the best thing to do was to take him off."

Johnny Sexton is also set to feature after passing through the three stages of his HIA.

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