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Marcell Coetzee is the best number eight in world rugby: Ulster back row hailed ahead of PRO14 final


Marcell Coetzee

Marcell Coetzee

�INPHO/Billy Stickland

Marcell Coetzee

Marcell Coetzee not making the Guinness PRO14's Dream Team in either of his full seasons at Ulster can at least be partly explained by playing in the same position as Edinburgh's Bill Mata.

Downright unfathomable, however, is the fact that Ulster’s brilliant and bruising import has not received a single man of the match award in the league this season.

Watching the Springbok - who likely would have won a World Cup medal last year if not for injury - in action through Ulster’s march to tonight’s PRO14 final, there is no doubting his key role in leading the province to this stage. As his head coach knows all too well.

Dan McFarland, surely thankful that his arrival at Kingspan Stadium coincided with Coetzee’s return from a two and a half year injury nightmare, calls the former Natal Shark a "social glue" in his squad, and sees his role as akin to Johnny Sexton's for tonight's opponents Leinster.

One only has to look at his huge contribution in keeping Ulster in last weekend's semi-final before they ultimately triumphed thanks to equally timely work from Ian Madigan off the kicking tee.

“He’s a massive player,” said McFarland of his number 8. “Physically he’s massive but he also makes clutch plays and in those games you need clutch players.

“Johnny Sexton is a clutch player, when you need him to kick a penalty to the corner and land it five metres from the goalline he pulls it out of the bag.

“Marcell, when you need a jackal because you’re under pressure, he just pulls it out of the bag.

“The last 20 minutes when you need a number of regular, muscular carries he’ll do that for you.

“He works tirelessly for us and he’s a great man to have around. He’s what a lot of people or psychologists would describe as ‘social glue’.

“He doesn’t lead in the sense of telling people what to do the whole time, but he has a way about him that pulls people together and can make people think as if they’re part of it and they’re important. I’ve got a lot of respect for Marcell.”

Plenty of Ulster players have said the same, Rory Best once reflecting that the 2016 signing was everything "your foreign players should be."

It's easy to forget now that his signing was once viewed as an almost cautionary tale, injuring his knee between signing and arrival before managing just five games in his first two seasons, leaving injured in two of them.

Then Director of Rugby Les Kiss privately believed Coetzee's re-injuring the knee just in March of 2017 was a savage mental blow to a squad that went on to miss out on knock-out rugby altogether for the first time since 2011. When Kiss phoned his player after his next set-back, by now back home in South Africa rehabbing, the Springbok assumed his coach was calling with the news that he wanted to cut ties.

Instead, it was with the affirmation that Ulster would honour the third year of his deal and, while Kiss was no longer around to reap the benefit, that loyalty was repaid last year when despite multiple suitors at home and abroad, Coetzee inked a deal to keep him in Belfast until 2022.

"That was massive and played a big part in my re-signing," he said at the time.

"At one stage I was thinking that I was done with the club and I’ve only played four games here and that would have been a heavy burden on me leaving this club.

"But they’ve invested so much in you and when it came to that moment when they decided that they were going to stick with you, that was just that extra motivation to get back and get on the pitch.

"And hopefully you will have seen from my performances that I really appreciated that timeframe in which they’ve been here for me and my wife.

"I’m just happy to reward them."

There's little doubt he's done just that over the past two seasons with one legendary back-rower even going as far as to say he's the side's best ever number eight.

"I think Marcell Coetzee is the best back-rower I've ever seen live, the best number eight in world rugby for me," said Stephen Ferris this week. "I think he'd start for every team in the world and without a shadow of a doubt I think he's Ulster best number eight period.

"He's someone I would have loved to play with, he's somebody I would have loved to have played against too actually, I'd have loved that challenge.

"You look at Leinster and all those back-rowers they have, I think Marcell would start ahead of all of them."

Ferris knows all too well the frustrations

"A lot of credit has to go to him. He could have fallen by the wayside with all those injuries he's had and that takes a real mental resilience. To come back from those operations, being out for as long as he was, he's a real talisman for Ulster.

"He leads by example, he's a little bit more like myself, I don't think he talks too much but he wants his actions to speak for themselves.Has he had a poor game in an Ulster jersey? Ever?

"Sometimes he's quieter against lesser opposition but the bigger the game the bigger the man and that's what you love to see."

For Ulster, they don't come much bigger than today's final. There's few better men to be leading the charge.

Belfast Telegraph