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Jonathan Bradley of Belfast Telegraph (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

It’s family first, not a question of loyalty... Marcell Coetzee cannot be blamed for decision in this strangest of years

Jonathan Bradley


Going home: Marcell Coetzee of Ulster against Southern Kings in South Africa back in 2018

Going home: Marcell Coetzee of Ulster against Southern Kings in South Africa back in 2018

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Going home: Marcell Coetzee of Ulster against Southern Kings in South Africa back in 2018

The season of goodwill to all men has not quite extended to those who have decided they’d rather play their rugby elsewhere.

There is no shame in admitting that the surprising timing of the hardly surprising news that Ulster’s best player, Marcell Coetzee, would be returning home at the end of this season left a bitter taste as you weighed into your turkey dinner.

Most teams in the world would miss him and the northern province certainly will do so next season and beyond.

But those who are finding it harder to digest than most, those that have taken to Twitter to accuse the player of disloyalty or suggest he should not pull on the white jersey between now and his June switch to the Blue Bulls, are holding a professional sportsman to a standard they would not expect of themselves nor, indeed, Coetzee’s employers.

The perceived ‘crime’ committed by the 29-year-old South African is that, all things considered, he’d like to leave Ulster a year earlier than he originally thought he might and as a result has asked out of the three-year contract he signed in 2019.

To see this as an egregious act is to ignore the reality that things change. Indeed, the terms of the deal he signed back then already have, thanks to the unilateral pay-cuts and deferrals brought in on all rugby players in Ireland making more than £25,000 a year.

That didn’t matter, though, to those who spent however small a part of their festive season denigrating the man on social media.

And a man, remember, is what he is. Not a player, not an employee, but a human subject to the whims of human emotion and human circumstance.


Marcell Coetzee, then of the Sharks, tackles Nizaam Carr of the Stormers in 2016

Marcell Coetzee, then of the Sharks, tackles Nizaam Carr of the Stormers in 2016

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Marcell Coetzee, then of the Sharks, tackles Nizaam Carr of the Stormers in 2016

At the end of this strangest and most isolated of years, if Marcell Coetzee and his family have decided they’d rather be at home than half the world away, that is a more than understandable conclusion.

It’s not one that led him to ‘down tools’. Since his first doubts about his immediate future began to fester during lockdown, he’s still been Ulster’s best performer and still put his body on the line each time he has taken the field.

If he hasn’t been giving 100 per cent then there are plenty of opponents in the PRO14 glad they haven’t been the victim of him going full bore.

Ulster could have forced him to see out the duration of the deal, expecting him to maintain those standards until his departure in 2022, but to what end?

In David McCann, the former Irish under-20s captain who has debuted this season, they already have the player they hope can be Coetzee’s ultimate successor in the number eight jersey and, if the market allows, they can now use those freed-up funds to find an imported talisman who wants to be here next season and beyond.

That is not to say that this has been an edifying episode.

The Bulls could have kept a lid on their announcement until after Christmas Day.

Just as they could have made even a token effort to disguise the fact that they were in contact with another team’s player last month when their coach Jake White openly discussed Coetzee.

When asked about that particular situation, Ulster kept their counsel. Bar CEO Jonny Petrie’s Twitter admission to a feeling of deep frustration, they’ll likely have little choice but to do the same now.

All that, though, has been background to the story’s main narrative thrust.

While the sport remains so predisposed to talk about the ‘rugby family’, Coetzee’s foremost priority is his own kin.

That takes precedence over sport, takes precedence over the feelings of disappointed fans who won’t get to watch him for the 80 or so minutes a week in which he is Marcell Coetzee the rugby player and, yes, takes precedence over an already altered contract that he signed when the pre-pandemic world was a very different place.

The inherent desire to be close to home has served Ulster and their Irish neighbours well down the year.

All things being equal, the likes of Rory Best, Andrew Trimble, Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson would not have spent their entire careers in one jersey if it wasn’t their jersey, but it works both ways.

The cost of doing business with imports is that their home will always be elsewhere. Or almost always at any rate.

Ruan Pienaar and his family came to see Belfast as home. At the end of Coetzee’s first season in Belfast, the Pienaars were shipped off thanks to a policy that could just as well have applied to his compatriot a year from now.

Perhaps the only recent rival to Pienaar in his affection for his home away from home was Nick Williams.

A favourite of the fans and a former Pro12 Player of the Year, Williams and his young family would have liked to stay at Ulster when his deal was up in 2016 but they had to move on...to make way for Coetzee.

Loyalty doesn’t mean wanting to play for your employers for as long as they would like you to play for them. Just as it doesn’t mean a pro outfit offering contracts to those who want to stay but the team doesn’t feel the need to keep.

It appears forgotten by some that such an interpretation of the word, at least as it pertains to professional sport, would require a two-way street. And that’s a road long-since closed.

Belfast Telegraph