Belfast Telegraph

Marcell Coetzee is happy to be so decisive in making Ulster tick

No nonsense: Marcell Coetzee at Kingspan Stadium ahead of Ulster’s clash with Clermont Auvergne
No nonsense: Marcell Coetzee at Kingspan Stadium ahead of Ulster’s clash with Clermont Auvergne

By Michael Sadlier

Two vignettes of Marcell Coetzee can tell us much of the player and the man who is the very heartbeat of this Ulster squad.

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The first, a 78th-minute jackal on Chris Cook at The Rec last weekend when he was right in the zone and the other, at the start of the month, when he was off the field watching and celebrating the Springboks winning the World Cup while in Belfast's Europa Hotel.

Neither were quite what they seemed. The jackal on Cook, Coetzee's second of the game after also gleefully enveloping Sam Underhill earlier on, looked to have been a match-winner, but when the ball from the resulting penalty was kicked to touch, Rob Herring was done for a crooked throw as the clock hit red.

It gave Bath one more shot and another defensive set for a weary Coetzee and co. As the final play unfolded, Ulster were opened up and only Jacob Stockdale's intercept of Zach Mercer's pass to Semesa Rokoduguni saved the day.

While much praise has rightly been heaped on Stockdale, the fact remains that Ulster should never have put themselves under such stress as they escaped Bath with a vital European away win ahead of tomorrow's first home game against the mighty Clermont, favourites to top Pool Three.

You can guess that Coetzee - who had already led the way by putting in his usual high number of carries, at 19 to his name, as well as making 17 shoulder-shredding tackles - was less than pleased when Ulster failed to do the basics and get the ball off the park.

"Yeah, that happens in rugby sometimes," stated the 28-year-old back-rower. "Just when you think you have got it, a simple mistake like that can come back to you. I think it is very important to always be switched on, never let your guard down.

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"On that occasion our defence was tested. Thank goodness for Jacob making that great read."

And what of the World Cup final moment? He was at a fundraising breakfast for the Wooden Spoon charity with Willie John McBride and team-mate John Cooney.

But for an ankle injury picked up playing for the Boks against Argentina over the summer, the 30-times-capped Coetzee might well have been in Yokohama pocketing a World Cup-winning medal.

Instead he was in Belfast and, though he enjoyed it, especially given the result, it was difficult to avoid that sense of missed opportunity.

As he explained: "It was a bit of mixed feelings really. But the bigger picture was that it was massive for South Africa.

"I just cheered them all the way, and you are so happy for your friends."

With injury misfortune having intruded so much for Coetzee in his first two seasons at Ulster, it was an even harder knock that he broke down again when recalled for his national side following last season's memorable performances at the province.

Cruel but, then again, these are instructive snapshots of the man. He just gets on with it. An error from his team-mates at Bath? Nothing else for it but to play out time really.

And sitting in the Europa Hotel and pressing the flesh instead of thundering around or just looking on as a squad member in Yokohama? You deal with it, you move on.

Mind you, he still harbours ideas of playing for the Boks against the British and Irish Lions in 2021.

If Ulster are to go two from two in the Champions Cup tomorrow evening then Coetzee will have to be at his cussed best, winning moments in both attack and defence.

In that regard, what happened at Bath, when Ulster spent so much time defending, has no relevance to what is needed now.

His approach to ball-carrying is to get his hands on it as quickly as possible. You'll notice him tomorrow, intent on smashing the gain-line and trying to bring more potency to Ulster's attacking shape.

"You just want to get in the game straight up," explained Coetzee. "We (Ulster) like to attack space where we see it, then getting in a position to be able to create that for our backline."

Defensively, he chooses his moments carefully before latching onto an attacker who has gone to ground. Sometimes it works and gains penalties, other moments it doesn't and concedes them.

Again, Coetzee provides an enlightening explanation of his thought process in the heat of battle.

"You start picking up the rhythm of the game and you would know that if you see a good leg chop (tackle), then that is an ideal position to get in," he said.

"You can have small triggers in your mind as to when to do it or when not to do it, and I think that comes down again to the guy next to you, making a good offensive tackle for you to make that decision. I think that window to get in is so small.

"That is the biggest challenge to it, when is the right moment and then to just stick in (there)."

Clermont will bring power and confidence to Kingspan Stadium, especially after their hammering of Harlequins, though the three-time losing Champions Cup finalists and current Challenge Cup holders have not won on their previous two visits to Belfast.

"They will be coming to make an impression," he said. "I think we stick to what we are doing at the moment and we work hard for each other."

That's Coetzee, central to the team ethic and its heartbeat both on and off the field.

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