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Marcell Coetzee's World Cup agony has not shown in shining Ulster performances: McFarland

 

Leading light: Marcell Coetzee has continued to be a stirring influence in the Ulster line-up
Leading light: Marcell Coetzee has continued to be a stirring influence in the Ulster line-up
Full praise: Dan McFarland has hailed Coetzee’s mentality

By Cian Tracey

Spare a thought for Marcell Coetzee who, instead of playing in a World Cup final, found himself slugging it out with Zebre in the bucketing rain.

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There were no guarantees Coet­zee would have made South Africa's 31-man squad, but that injury robbed him of a chance to do so is rather in keeping with his disrupted career that has unfortunately been blighted by setbacks.

That's what makes his current level of performance even more impressive.

No other player in the country possesses the same sheer raw power and brute strength that Coetzee has.

A force of nature with ball in hand and an outstanding poacher at the breakdown, he has quickly established himself as one of the most important players in any of the four provinces.

The 28-year-old's Ulster career was very nearly over before it ever started, however, as two serious knee injuries threatened to force him into early retirement.

That the club stuck by him through thick in thin, especially in the early days, is commendable but, then again, Ulster recognised Coetzee's world-class ability and what he could bring to their set-up.

Securing his immediate future with a new three-year deal earlier this year was up there with the best bits of busi­ness Ulster have done in recent times.

Naturally enough, there was plenty of interest from overseas, where he could have multiplied his salary, but Coetzee reciprocated the loyalty that Ulster showed to him during his dark days, which is refreshing.

His performances haven't gone unnoticed by Rassie Erasmus either, which is why he was in with a chance of making the plane to Japan until an ankle injury scuppered his chances.

Breaking into the Springboks' start­ing XV would have been extremely tough, but Coetzee would have made a brilliant team even better, which is frightening for the chasing pack.

He will have his sights set on featur­ing in the 2021 Lions tour and, while it won't make up for missing out on a World Cup winner's medal, it will go some way to making up for lost time.

"He is a larger than life character off the pitch, which is really quite unusual because any South Africans I have met they are a bit dour, for want of a better word, he is a bit more loud and excita­ble," Luke Marshall says.

From a coach's point of view, Coetzee is a dream because, although he has been one of the form players in Europe over the last year or so, he is constantly striving to improve. Dan McFarland has worked with some good players, but Coetzee is right up there.

"For a guy who is so impactful in the sense of being a star player, he wants to progress, he wants to learn," the Ulster head coach maintains.

"Ball-carrying, you would not think there is much for him to learn, but he is keen to learn on those kind of things, he would do any­thing you would ask of him.

"He is a big team man, he loves that family aspect of it, like all the guys do.

"I think it is interesting, and it probably bypasses most people, for him watch­ing the World Cup final and watching his country win a World Cup in the full knowledge, I believe anyway, that he would have been involved in that game but for the fact that an Argen­tinian pushed him in the back, and he got his syndesmosis injury, must have been tough.

"I spoke to him about it and I know it was tough and yet at no time would you have thought it affected his perfor­mances for his province and his mates during that World Cup period.

"That is a testament to the man. His mind could easily have drifted in that situation and I am sure throughout professional rugby for a lot of players who missed out on a World Cup it would have done, but it did not for him.

"You can just see the way he plays. It is not making up for lost time, but he understands rugby mortality more than most people and he is making the most of it."

Coetzee has played every minute of Ulster's Heineken Champions Cup campaign thus far as well as another four games in PRO14.

He has made 193 metres in his 97 carries, beaten 20 defenders, put in 73 tackles and won five turnovers in those six games.

Ulster will certainly need Coetzee to be at his rampaging best over the next two weeks in the back-to-back meetings with Harlequins.

As he has proved over the years, he is a man for the big occasion and, having fought back from the brink, Coetzee is determined to make the most of every chance he gets to step onto a pitch.

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