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Star Coetzee wants first Christmas in Ulster to be a real cracker

 

Top man: Marcell Coetzee is presented with Friday’s Guinness PRO14 Man of the Match award by Barney McCann of the sponsors
Top man: Marcell Coetzee is presented with Friday’s Guinness PRO14 Man of the Match award by Barney McCann of the sponsors
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

It will be a first Christmas in Northern Ireland for Marcell Coetzee this year as Ulster's in-form South African finally gets his chance to shine in the festive interpros.

Having spent his first two seasons at Kingspan Stadium injured except for a handful of weeks, the holiday periods had been spent back in his homeland but, after a man of the match display in Friday's win over Munster and Connacht to come this weekend, there will be no such downtime this year.

"It's a bit difficult," he admitted of being so far from home at this time of year. "It's the first time I won't spend Christmas with my parents or my in-laws. Me and my wife, with the dog, will make it special and we'll enjoy Northern Ireland.

"It's a much colder winter than I'm used to in South Africa, usually it'll be 30 degrees at this time, but it's part of the experience and I'm enjoying every moment.

"There's one thing about Belfast at the moment, it's putting a lot of emphasis on Christmas and that makes it extra special."

Of course, Coetzee would gladly swap the comforts of Christmas in South Africa to be out playing rugby again. Having missed only one game this season - the 64-7 thumping to Munster back in September - the back-rower has been an integral part of the recent string of results that have lifted the spirits of Ulster fans as an often testing 2018 draws to a close.

"As I said in other media interviews, every game for me is a humbling experience," he said. "Every chance you get to express yourself and use your talent and play amongst a good bunch of boys around me, it just lights a fire in you and makes you want to give more to the team."

In the 19-12 win over Munster, the 27-year-old again offered plenty, leading his side in tackles and defenders beaten, while second in carries only to Will Addison.

"I think especially with games like (Munster) when it's really crunching, a lot of passion was shown by the boys," he said.

"Like I said, we made a lot of mistakes at crucial times, but just that maturity to reset and reboot will go a long way.

"It's a real blessing to be out there with the boys and expressing yourself. Ultimately it was a team effort, we stuck to our guns and showed what we're made of.

"To walk away with the (man of the match) accolade is a blessing for me, and I'd like to take this moment to thank my God for blessing me and so far this whole season."

In what was an often bruising if uninspired game, head coach Dan McFarland felt his side lost the physical battle in the first-half. Thanks to some half-time tweaks, a strong defensive effort - Munster were held to only four penalty goals - and a few more instances of fine maul work though, they were able to get the job done. Coetzee was again pleased to see Ulster's often maligned forward work come to the fore as it has over the past four victories.

"A lot of work goes into it during the week, and I think the synergy between the boys at the moment is phenomenal," he said.

"It forces you to do that extra work.

"The maul is the ideal situation for the pack to come together and flex your muscles, and we just want to be complete in our performances in that way. We want to have a good line-out, line-out mauls and scrums as a pack. You saw when it's crunching games and it's neck-on-neck, those are the moments that will spark and create the special moments."

While the Ulster players will have tomorrow off to spend with their families - Tuesday is usually the team's day off ahead of a Friday night game - it will be right back to work come Boxing Day.

Having won six of their last seven in all competitions, the side sit second in the PRO14's conference B ahead of their weekend trip to Galway, although memories of Connacht's win in Belfast earlier in the year will no doubt still be fresh.

With games against Leinster and Racing 92, last season's Champions Cup finalists, to come in the two weeks following their trip to the Sportsground, continued impetus would be a much valued commodity.

"Having the momentum on our side at the moment is really enjoyable," said Coetzee."It's easier when every weekend it keeps the morale up and the energy going, and our whole motto is take it week by week, and that's how we build our vision and our team performances going forward, so yeah, we'll stick to that.

"You want to keep the momentum going, you don't want to have any setbacks going into the new year, especially with a strong Leinster in the new year, so before we even focus on that we'll focus on Connacht.

"Last time we came second best, so a lot of prep work needs to go in, a lot of professionalism off the field with Christmas being around, and we have to keep our eye on the prize."

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