Marcell Coetzee fired up for glory once injury hell finally ends
As the old saying goes, you don't know what you've got until it's gone. When Marcell Coetzee arrived in Ulster last summer with a knee injury sustained playing for his old side the Sharks, it was seen as a cruel twist of fate for the player, not an insurmountable obstacle to Ulster's 2016/17 ambitions.
With an optimistic return date set for around Christmas, and the injury only expected to rob him of half a season in a three-year deal, the abrasive flanker's absence was the cause of frustration rather than despair among the faithful.
But when the 26-year-old Springbok returned to action in February - with Ulster's season already hanging in the balance - he offered a tantalising glimpse of what he can bring to Les Kiss's back-row, showing exactly what had been absent throughout a lacklustre campaign.
For a player not known solely as a carrier in his homeland, he racked up 26 in his first hour wearing an Ulster jersey, bringing real balance to a loose-forward trio that was also set to contain Sean Reidy and Chris Henry.
As such, when he suffered another injury and required season-ending surgery, it was no longer an inconvenience but a disaster.
Any momentum it seemed had been building since his return, admittedly thanks to wins against sub-par opposition, dissipated into the Belfast air that March evening against Zebre, even as the hosts ran in 10 tries.
And for all the usual player proclamations that this is a sport in which injuries are inevitable, you have to imagine the squad felt it too as the season marched limply to a conclusion.
"It was such a disappointing year," Coetzee admitted.
"You had your four games and then all of a sudden that was it.
"It's been unfortunate, especially coming into the play-off run when there were a lot of big matches to be playing.
"We were building momentum, we had six wins in a row, then it all went a bit askew.
"It's been a frustrating season not just for me but for everyone. We have the players, we have the quality, we just have to build on that. We have to identify the mistakes that we made and put that right next season."
The good news for Ulster and their supporters is that Coetzee believes that, this time, he will be ready from the off.
His second knee injury of the past 12 months was not of the same severity as the first, with the damage being done to his medial meniscal cartilage rather than his surgically repaired ACL.
Indeed, he is already looking forward to the first pre-season friendly ahead of the new campaign.
"Everything is going well at the moment," he said.
"I'm off the crutches for over a month and the rehab group has been excellent.
"Next season, for pre-season, I'll be with the squad already and we're looking forward to it.
"I can't wait even for the friendlies, the hunger is there already. I'm really looking forward to it personally.
"Every time you pull on an Ulster jersey you want to do it justice and yourself justice. As a player, you want to contribute and give your best. There's so much to look forward to for me.
"If I have an injury free year, everything else will really be a bonus after the last few years. I just can't wait to play rugby again."
Things around Kingspan Stadium in his second season will be much different from the first, with several long-serving stalwarts making their exit.
There'll be no Ruan Pienaar or Roger Wilson in the dressing room, while coaches Allen Clarke and Neil Doak are to be replaced by Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel.
"Next season, we'll be building a new culture," added Coetzee. "There'll be a lot of changes with new management and some new players into the squad too. It's interesting times to see how that evolves."
One such arrival on the playing side will be Bulls back-rower Arno Botha, himself recently fit again after a knee complaint.
He and Coetzee are well acquainted - indeed when Botha was substituted late in his Springbok debut, it was Coetzee who replaced him - with their association going all the way back to their teenage years.
And Coetzee believes his compatriot can offer something the province have been lacking.
"We had a bit of a competition between ourselves in the junior ranks so it'll be interesting having him as a brother instead of an enemy," he said.
"We've spoken a lot about how I found Ulster, how I found Belfast and I just told him, 'look, you're making a very good decision, actually'. He's a great line-out option, he's a great guy to get you over the advantage line and that's what Ulster needs at the moment."
Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph understands that Charles Piutau has had minor surgery on his ankle since the end of the season.
It is not, however, thought that it will have any impact on the Guinness PRO12 Player of the Year's readiness for the 2017/18 campaign and he is expected to be ready to join pre-season training in approximately two months.