Ulster ready to unleash star signing Coetzee at long last
With the considerable shadow cast by the Six Nations, Guinness PRO12 action can often seem to be shunted into the background at this time of year, but Ulster's clash with Edinburgh on Friday will bring one of the most anticipated sights of the season for the province's faithful.
After using a particularly fearsome shot of Marcell Coetzee with the warning "It's Time" in their marketing for the game, Ulster Rugby's communications team had already dropped a considerable hint, but Les Kiss confirmed yesterday that the powerful South African will belatedly be making his Kingspan bow this weekend.
Ever since last February, when it was announced in the pages of this paper that the Springbok would be moving to Belfast, supporters had looked forward to seeing the 25-year-old's considerable physical presence in the Ulster back-row only for a serious knee injury to delay his debut.
The side's form was horrid before a three-week break, losing four in a row and eight of 13, but Coetzee's availability will bring an undoubted boost.
For the player himself, it's been a long 10 months on the road to recovery with Kiss confirming that the former Natal Shark is brimming with excitement about pulling on the jersey for a first time this weekend.
"He is champing at the bit and he certainly has an infectious nature about him," said the Director of Rugby.
"He is enthusiastic and he is gunning to go. All being equal he will be starting this week."
Ulster have plenty of experience in ushering players back from ACL injuries - Stuart Olding, also fit again this week, has sustained two such injuries in the past - and Kiss cautioned that Coetzee should be allowed to work his way back into form.
"It will be interesting with that amount of time out," he said.
"We have seen it ourselves with players who have been out for similar lengths. You don't hit your straps straight away, but you hope you can bring your key strengths though.
"Will he last 80 minutes? Probably not. But we have a plan that is flexible to a degree with him.
"I think just having him in there and around the boys has been really helpful.
"You know his remit is not to try and win a game on his own, it is to fit in, make sure he knows what he is about.
"He is looking forward to it. Touch wood it will all continue down that path."
Coetzee is not the only player making a return in time for the visitors from the Scottish capital, with Ulster's ranks boosted further by Olding, Wiehahn Herbst and Pete Nelson. The latter has been out even longer than Coetzee, having required foot surgery after an injury against Friday's opponents back in December of 2015, with his presence set to provide another option at out-half with Paddy Jackson on Ireland duty. Youngster Brett Herron has served as Jackson's back-up this year, while Olding is also capable of filling in, but Johnny McPhillips will not be recalled from Ireland under-20 duty after his man-of-the-match showing against the Scots last week.
"Pete Nelson is right in the mix," said Kiss.
"He's had a couple games back with Hinch and been extremely impressive.
"I think Pete in that period when he went into ten, he looked like he'd done it for years, he wasn't complete obviously, but you know he can do that well. I think it's nice to have that, it deepens the position for us. Brett has held down the fort when needed and, without Paddy, we have Stu Olding as an option too.
"Johnny McPhillips has played well with the under-20s. It's his second year with that team, it would be great to see him take ownership and grow it," he said.
"At this stage, the thinking is keep him there game by game in the under 20s but you never know in this game.
"We've seen that a number of times where we've had to call people up for depth.
"We know what he has to work on, and he does too, but it was great to see what he did in that game to help them forge out that victory."
Both Ruan Pienaar and Rob Herring are at least another week away - meaning a first start of the year for John Andrew at hooker - but there was some welcome encouraging news on Jared Payne.
The Irish centre, who picked up a nasty kidney injury against Australia in November, returned to training yesterday.
"He has had his first good running session today so he is still away from contact in any form," said Kiss.
"I think it is important we take that step by step. He seems to be in a really good place," he said.
"He was sucking air a bit but he is a guy who gets fit very quickly, he does not usually lose it a lot.
"He has lost a bit of weight, as you can imagine, but he will put that back on quickly," explained Kiss
"We are not likely to give you a date for a return, each day is going to be important for him, but to tell you the truth is has been really positive."