Marcell Coetzee aims to put his double Rugby World Cup disappointment behind him by starring for the Springboks in their series against the British and Irish Lions in 2021 but in the meantime his full focus is on helping Ulster to Guinness PRO14 and European success.
Coetzee started the season late because of the ankle injury that put him out of consideration for the Bok squad that won the Rugby World Cup in such convincing style in Yokohama two weeks ago. He wasn’t part of his team’s convincing opening PRO 14 win over the Ospreys at Kingspan Stadium, and he had to watch his teammates get outplayed 63-26 by the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in their second match.
However, the former Sharks loose-forward made his return when the Irish side bounced back to win their second tour match against the Isuzu Southern Kings. He has been in the thick of it ever since in helping Ulster to second position in Conference A in the PRO14, with the narrow defeat to the Munster side coached by fellow South African Johan van Graan the only other Ulster blemish to date.
“We were not proud of that performance against the Cheetahs but it helped in that we were quickly able to decide what our weak points were and what we needed to improve on,” said Coetzee.
“We went into training on the Monday in Cape Town knowing what we needed to do to break back, and we did that.”
Coetzee continued his own and his team’s momentum at the weekend by playing a starring role in his team’s nail-biting win over Bath at the start of their Champions Cup campaign. A late intercept try clinched a one point win for Ulster, but the defence was what laid the platform for the winners. In addition to 17 tackles, Coetzee, who was playing at No8, also made 19 carries.
That performance and the preceding ones has helped Coetzee to bring some cheer back into his life after he admits he was pretty inconsolable when, for the second time in the space of four years, he emerged from a meeting with a Springbok coach with the realisation that his World Cup dream was over.
It will be recalled that Coetzee was given a chance to force his way into the 2019 World Cup squad by being selected to face Argentina in the final warm-up game to be played on South African soil. Early in the game he was forced off through concussion and then it was confirmed he had an ankle injury that ruled out his availability for the tournament.
In 2015 Coetzee had to hear in a meeting with Heyneke Meyer that he was left out of the squad that played that World Cup in England, so for him it was a case of lightning striking twice.
“It was very disappointing for me and it wasn't the first time. Being selected to play that game against the Pumas was a chance to show what I can do but unfortunately it didn’t go my way. To have the HIA test go against me and then the ankle injury on top of that was very hard to swallow.
“But in the end you have to decide - are you going to just lie down and take it, or are you going to fight back? While it was a tough one for me to swallow, time does heel all wounds. I resolved that I just had to get back on the horse again and start riding again.”
Coetzee has spent quite a bit of time on the sidelines because of injury in the past few years and it has taught him to just appreciate every minute he does spend on the field.
“The biggest thing that you learn when you go through serious injuries and then come out of it is that you are blessed to be able to play rugby again,” he said.
“Yes, it was disappointing to miss out on another World Cup. I can confirm that I was on standby in case there was an injury to a loose-forward. But injuries just make you hungry to play again. Whether it is at the highest level, whether it is for Ulster or for the Boks, it is great to just be able to play and focus on that.”
While Coetzee’s short-term focus is on helping Ulster be successful in both competitions, he admits he does now have his eye on the iconic series that will be played on South African soil in 2021.
“Playing against the Lions is definitely my long term goal. It would be great if I can do that. But my focus and energy must be on Ulster. If I do that and perform consistently, and the team performs consistently, then ultimately a door may open and we can see where it goes from there.”
Coetzee admits he was probably the most passionate and perhaps loudest Bok supporter in Ireland during the World Cup.
“We were fans before being rugby players so that never dies in us. I shout a lot at the TV and I shout at the referees. It’s a good thing they can’t hear me. I have great mates in the Bok team, particularly someone like Pieter-Steph (du Toit), and I shared their joy.”