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Dreaming of Boks return helped me during injury woe at Ulster, says Coetzee

Having a ball: Marcell Coetzee during South Africa training
Having a ball: Marcell Coetzee during South Africa training
Rassie Erasmus
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

A thankful Marcell Coetzee can hardly believe he is back representing his native South Africa having gone from thoughts of retirement to the cusp of a World Cup in little over a year.

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Ulster's bruising No.8 was a revelation at Kingspan Stadium last campaign, finally getting to show his quality after two full seasons almost entirely derailed by serious knee injuries and playing a leading role as Dan McFarland's side returned to the knockout stages of both the Champions Cup and PRO14.

Now, having already been rewarded with a new contract at the province, he has earned a recall to the South Africa squad and will be looking to push his case for a place in Rassie Erasmus' World Cup squad when he gets the start against Argentina in Pretoria tomorrow.

But in a wider sense, his first start for his country in four years is a landmark in itself, something he could hardly have imagined when managing just five games over his first two northern hemisphere seasons.

"It has been phenomenal," Coetzee said. "If you would have asked me a year ago whether I would be sitting here, I would have said no way. It has been a great journey for me so far.

"A year ago I was thinking about retirement with the continuous niggles that I had. Being back in the mix with the Boks and being with your friends and soaking up everything, I want to enjoy every moment."

Having emerged stronger from the long injury nightmare, he believes that it was a combination of patience and the dream of one day pulling on the famous green jersey again that spurred him on during the darker days.

"There is one thing you can't control and that is injuries," he continued. "The rehab stages were vital. It is rugby, it's a physical sport and a contact sport. Sometimes people get injured without even taking contact, it is the way of the game.

"The biggest emphasis was the rehab with the ACL. It is a nine-month injury, so it is a lot of patience and hard work.

"When I think back it was this moment, sitting here and playing for the Boks, that kept me getting up all the time.

"Chasing a dream that is bigger than yourself was something that ultimately pulled me through.

"My faith also played a huge role in this, the support of my family and friends helped me get on the horse again and keep on fighting."

With his recall coming back in June - during his stellar season in the PRO14, Coetzee had said there had been no recent contact with management back home - the 28-year-old believes he is a better, more mature player than the one who left the Sharks for Ulster back in 2016.

"I have picked up a lot of experience playing abroad," he said. "Obviously those first two seasons did not go as well as planned. I think I am a bit more mature in how I handle things now.

"I have played a lot at No.8 for Ulster, so that helped me work on a lot of weak points."

Making the squad for Japan, where he briefly played his club rugby, would set him up for a potential quarter-final tie with a few of his Ulster team-mates but Coetzee knows that competition to make the plane is fierce.

Having secured the Rugby Championship last weekend, depth has been a real key to their recent resurgence under Erasmus and captain Siya Kolisi is another who will be back in the mix at Loftus Versfeld this weekend.

Vying for a squad place alongside them will be the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw and Kwagga Smith. Erasmus is hardly short of options when it comes to his loose forward selections.

With this the last game before the squad set off for Japan, where they will then play the hosts in a final warm-up prior to kicking off their pool with a mouthwatering clash with the All Blacks, tensions are sure to be running high for the numerous fringe players looking to stake one final claim to be in the 31-man travelling party.

Coetzee, though, believes that unity of purpose can see the squad rise above personal ambition to lay down another marker against the Pumas.

"I think at the moment the strength is the depth," he said. "The team this weekend is still a competitive team, there's great players all around.

"It's been phenomenal to be a part of it for the last eight weeks. You can see the culture that's been created and we're reaping the benefits.

"The environment is unbelievable. Everyone sees the same goal and the same dream.

"Whoever gets picked will do their best and represent their country as best they can. South Africa is in a very good spot right now and it's getting harder and harder (to be picked).

"I'm just thankful for the opportunity to get out there with the boys and just show what you can do. (Selection) is out of your hands. All you can do is produce and show what you can do and it's whether the coaches think that's good enough.

"At the end of the day, there's a bigger picture. You want to represent your country and just play for your brothers."

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