The Springbok has endured two injury-ravaged seasons but starts against Leicester Tigers tonight.
IF YOU LOOKED at the stats Marcell Coetzee is putting up this season, you’d think he was making up for lost time or something.
Not that two ACL surgeries in two seasons would do that to a man.
But the stats don’t lie. In five games, Coetzee has 68 carries, eight offloads and a league-leading 10 turnovers, seven of which came in 55 minutes of last week’s loss to Connacht at Kingspan Stadium.
So yeah, he has a point to prove.
“It’s always a process coming back in the beginning from those long injuries,” says the man himself, seemingly neglecting the fact he’s been on a one-man mission in Ulster’s back row this season.
“In terms of the body, I feel good. I did my shoulder against the Cheetahs and that broke the momentum a bit but luckily I got back on the horse quickly and this weekend I’ll be 100% ready to go.
“I want to focus on my own game and get to where I was before the injury and just keep building on that. It’s maybe a reminder for me to be as grateful as you should be every time you can play in a game and that’s maybe a new outlook for me.
“So far there haven’t been any setbacks and I can really feel the difference now compared to the first two games where it was a bit heavy. I can feel it getting stronger every game as it goes along and that gives you confidence as a player.”
The former Springbok has certainly been giving Ulster fans a full view of what they’ve been missing over the last couple of years while he kept grinding away week after week, month after month in the medical room at Kingspan Stadium.
What they’ve seen so far is what the supporters were hoping they’d see strung out over a period of three years, a big physical presence in the back row to replace former stars like Pedrie Wannenburg or Nick Williams.
But it so easily may have never happened. After being ruled out for the entirety of last season after playing only one game, it would have been easy for Ulster to cut ties with their marquee signing, admitting that cruel misfortune made this a bad deal for both parties.
However, the province stuck by their man, much to the delight of Coetzee.
“I think I have to give credit to Ulster for sticking with me that long, I don’t know of a club that would stick with a player in the modern day that has as many issues as I had,” the South African admits.
“I have had two, three surgeries since I got here and I really want to thank Ulster and the fans for being supportive through that time. The biggest challenge was getting back on the field and just handling that process.
“Rehabbing, as much as it’s physical, it’s mental. I have a great support system, a great family at home, a great wife who stuck with me through that. Whenever I step off the field now and I’m 100%, that’s what I think of first before anything else and I’m just grateful for that.”
And so, with his current contract expiring at the end of this campaign, might he reward Ulster’s loyalty by showing some of his own and agreeing to stay on for a few more years?
“That’s out of my hands in the future,” Coetzee says, with more than an inclination he knew the question might be coming his way.
“I’ll always cherish that, and it’ll be a factor when I’m making big decisions going forward, but I’m just focusing on the weekend, taking the Champions Cup game by game. But I did really appreciate it.”
While Coetzee may have been a stand out last week, his yellow card for a wild swinging arm on Kyle Godwin aside, the performance as a whole from Ulster left a lot to be desired, even if they did have to soldier through with one less man for an entire half.
The manner in which their pack, specifically the front row at the scrum, was dismantled by their western cousins will have head coach Dan McFarland looking for quick fixes ahead of a match-up against a similarly physical Leicester Tigers side on Saturday evening [KO 5.30pm, BT Sport].
That’s two inter-pro losses on the bounce for the province — one a record drubbing and the other a loss in fortress Kingspan — and, after their strong start to the season, suddenly the feel-good factor in Belfast doesn’t quite have the same pep as before.
But Coetzee isn’t pushing the panic button just yet, insisting that while there are plenty of learnings to be taken from the past couple of weeks, things haven’t quite hit crisis mode.
“Our discipline let us down a lot (against Connacht), me included, I didn’t make it easy on the team with that yellow card, and then the red card occurred as well, and other little discipline factors as well,” he outlines.
“That’s a big thing we identified going into this week, we have to sort out our discipline and stay consistent in our performances and get that continuity and momentum going, because when we have the ball and we do put up phases the opportunities arise, it’s just the handling on the ball and being disciplined.
“We had a hard look at ourselves going into the meeting yesterday, each player reminded how we can be better to help the guy alongside you.
“It’s not about individuals, it’s a team sport and a team effort, and we want to grow as a team in that department, particularly going into this championship where your set piece has to be strong, and also the team we’re facing, they have a good set piece and big forwards. We have to look to fix that.”
When he first agreed to join Ulster from the Sharks back in 2016, these were the games that the 26-times capped Springbok would have been eager to play in, when the intensity ramps up for those special European nights in Belfast.
He may have waited a year to make his return in an Ulster jersey, but this wait has been even longer.
“I’ve been waiting two years for this!” he says with a laugh. “Things didn’t go my way in the past seasons but fortunately I’ve been blessed to get the chance to play in this tournament now and hopefully it’ll be a good one this weekend.
“It’s a great tournament to be part of. You take the teams in it and it’s a good platform to measure where you are as a team. It’s definitely an electrifying atmosphere and we’re just looking forward to the challenge.
“It’s definitely well respected even before the big exodus of South African players to Europe, it was something we saw,” he added of the impact of the Heineken Champions Cup back in South Africa.
“The number of South Africans involved now it just makes it extra exciting for the boys back home. The rugby itself, we like the physical side and that’s what you get in this competition.”
Ahead of a meeting with the old foes Leicester, whom Ulster have had many a memorable tussle with over the years, there’s a sense that this is a chance to wipe the slate clean from the last two weeks and go again.
The Tigers have proven a good opponent for Ulster, particularly in Belfast, with bonus point wins coming in 2004, 2012 and 2015, while their Ruan Pienaar-driven 22-16 win at Welford Road in 2014 to go six-from-six will long live in the memory of any fan.
He may not have the same rivalry with the English side than some of his team-mates do, but that doesn’t stop Coetzee from being ready and raring to go to make his name on the European stage.
“That’s the maturity we all have to come to and just accept what it is, look at it as a new tournament, a fresh start,” the flanker says.
“If there’s one tournament you want to stamp your authority on it’s that one, and I think the whole mindset around the squad and everyone is an excitement, a buzz to get out there, and luckily it’s at home as well so the crowd will be behind us and we can feed off that energy.
“I can tell you, the guys are definitely looking forward to it.”
15. Michael Lowry
14. Craig Gilroy
13. Will Addison
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney
1. Andrew Warwick
2. Rory Best
3. Ross Kane
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Iain Henderson
6. Marcell Coetzee
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Nick Timoney
16. Adam McBurney
17. Eric O’Sullivan
18. Marty Moore
19. Kieran Treadwell
20. Sean Reidy
21. David Shanahan
22. Angus Curtis
23. Angus Kernohan.
15. Jonah Holmes
14. Adam Thompstone
13. Manu Tuilagi
12. Kyle Eastmond
11. Jordan Olowofela
10. George Ford
9. Ben Youngs
1. Greg Bateman
2. Tom Youngs (c)
3. Dan Cole
4. Mike Williams
5. Harry Wells
6. Guy Thompson
7. Brendon O’Connor
8. Sione Kalamafoni
16. Tatafu Polota-Nau
17. David Feao
18. Joe Heyes
19. Sam Lewis
20. Tommy Reffell
21. Sam Harrison
22. Matt Toomua
23. Gareth Owen.
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France).
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