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Marcell Coetzee can't wait to regain fitness and show Ulster his top quality

By Jonathan Bradley

As Marcell Coetzee ambles into one of the Kingspan Stadium's premium boxes for his first interview at Ulster, the latest big name recruit ducks his head to enter but still manages to leave little room in the doorway.

Physically imposing, he looks for all the world like a man who could run through a brick wall without hesitation tomorrow, certainly not a player who won't be able to take to the field until the early weeks of 2017.

Such is the luck of the 25-year-old, however, that a torn ACL sustained for his previous club, the Sharks, back in April means he is yet to begin full training with his new team-mates and could potentially miss all six pool games of the Champions Cup.

With a large sigh, the flanker admits it is still a source of huge frustration.

"It is very sad I'm not making my debut earlier," he said. "Injuries in general are not a good thing to have as a rugby player but when you come to a new club it's extra frustrating."

Alluding to his strong religious faith, he added: "You just have to trust that there is a reason for this and a reason to go through this but it tests your character and mental toughness as a person. I have grown immensely as an individual and conditioning wise I have been working on my weak areas.

"It's my first serious injury. I had been very lucky but ultimately it caught up with me. It is always tough to watch the guys playing and training.

"It is going very well so far, I have been rehabbing with the Sharks for the last four months and Ulster are going to take over in the first week of October. I haven't had any setbacks yet and if all goes well I'm aiming for mid-January or the end of January."

When his Sharks career came to an abrupt end - there were still nine games and a quarter-final defeat to come for the Durban outfit - Coetzee took comfort in how Ulster handled the news that their high-priced import would be delayed.

He was quickly contacted by the province to reassure him of their desire to see him arrive whenever he was ready while he has since talked to Stuart Olding, himself a victim of two ACL tears but now back in the Ireland squad, who stressed that his treatment at Ulster would be second to none.

"Ulster still had confidence in me, they said they still wanted me and that they were going to help me," said Coetzee

"They have had a few ACL problems here in the past and know how to deal with them. That gave me great confidence. I must thank Ulster for their support so far. It has been really immense."

Such patience has vindicated what was a hugely tough decision. At the Sharks he was a hero, a home-grown star who fans wanted their pack to be built around for years to come.

Leaving the only club he'd ever known, bar a short stint with Honda Heat in Japan, was a wrench but seeing the success of so many former Sharks at the Kingspan Stadium helped swing the debate in favour of a move.

Current Ulster players Ruan Pienaar, Franco van der Merwe, Louis Ludik and Wiehahn Herbst have all turned out for the Sharks in recent years while previous heroes like Johann Muller and Robbie Kempson also arrived in Belfast having come through the system at Kings Park.

Coetzee even revealed it is a running joke in the Sharks squad that Ulster is the side's second base.

"The Sharks have been awesome for my career, I really enjoyed my rugby there, but I just felt it was time for something different," he said. "I wanted to grow as a player and an individual and having spoken to Ruan and Bryn (Cunningham), Ulster shared the same principles that I have as a player.

"I spoke to Ruan, Franco, Wiehahn Herbst and Louis Ludik. Speaking with the guys, they say Ulster is a very unique club and I wanted to be a part of that.

"Just being here for a couple of days and seeing the professionalism, the management staff and the players, it's been really welcoming and I'd like to thank everyone for that."

Coetzee and his wife Chanelle are coming to the end of two weeks in their new home before heading back to South Africa to tie up some loose ends.

His first impressions have him looking forward to a quick return.

"I'll go back now because I still have some stuff to sort out in South Africa," he added.

"In October I will have progressed from my running and I'll be fully training with the squad, doing lineouts and scrums, doing all the functions that make you 100 per cent fit to play on your first day.

"When I come back here I will be in a happier state of mind. I will be able to run and train with the team and that's where the bonds usually form so it'll be a good time.

"Everyone has been warm and accommodating and has a wave and a smile. It's a lovely city proud of its rugby and proud of its heritage.

"It is a very warm welcoming city, everybody is friendly and smiling and accepting of who you are.

"Belfast in general is a proud city with its culture, history and also the rugby stadium.

"The players that have played here know that, playing with the likes of Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and all the legends here is going to be a heartening experience and I just can't wait to get onto the pitch."

Munster, meanwhile, were dealt an injury blow yesterday with the confirmation that Francis Saili will be sidelined for between three and four months after having to undergo shoulder surgery.

The twice-capped All Black is in the second season of a two-year deal at Thomond Park.

Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus said: "We got a setback with his shoulder.

"He went in for a scope yesterday but there was some more repair work needed. It's going to be an extended lay-off. It certainly wasn't great news but it is what it is."

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