Marcell Coetzee set for Euopean Cup debut with Ulster

Ulster backrow Marcell Coetzee in action against Connacht last week
Ulster backrow Marcell Coetzee in action against Connacht last week

Serious knee injuries have ensured Ulster have not got the most from their powerful South African backrow forward Marcell Coetzee over the previous two seasons.

The 28-capped Springbok joined Ulster in 2016, but back to back knee injuries saw him only make five appearances in two years.

He has already equalled that tally this season having fully recovered from a season out and he is excited as everyone to be finally making his bow in the Heineken European Champions Cup.

Ulster face Leicester Tigers in their Pool Four opener at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday evening (5:15pm) and given the injury profile the Province has had in recent weeks, having the thundering ball carrying backrow available is a huge boost.

There are also hopes that Irish international Jordi Murphy may also be available after injury as Ulster could do with both involved in what will be a tight opening game in Belfast.

Playing in Europe for the first time means a lot of Coetzee and it was clearly evident in his demeanour when he met the Press at the pre-match media briefing this week, talking enthusiastically about being involved this season.

“I’ve been waiting two years for this, so yeah it is great to be finally playing in Europe,” he enthused.

“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.”

“(The European Cup) is 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 this weekend,” he added.

Coetzee said there is a lot of interest across the world in the competition which is right up there as one of the best.

“It’s definitely well respected even before the big exodus of South African players to Europe, it was something we saw.

“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.”

Coetzee knows he has had to feel his way gradually back this season, his third of a three year contract with the Province, but he was not putting a percentage on where he was at this stage.

“It’s always a process coming back in the beginning from those long injuries,” he explained.

“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.”

Having been out for long terms twice, the impact of serious injuries mentally can effect players, but Coetzee is trying not to dwell on it and is just fortunate to be where he is.

There was speculation at one stage that he may have to retire early, but he is not certainly not looking back now.

“That first couple of games you want to get the monkey off your back, get that confidence.

“I’m not really thinking about it now, 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,” he added.

Playing in the position he does and bringing a robust and abrasive aspect to his style, Coetzee insists the injuries do not change the way players want to approach playing.

He said: “I think that’s where the rehab comes in.

“It’s more psychological. How confident you are in your body, what’s responding to the hits?

“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.”

And Coetzee is grateful for the opportunity Ulster have given him, sticking by him when, at times, it may have looked the move to Belfast was just not meant to be.

“I have to give credit to Ulster for sticking with me that long,” he said.

“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.

“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 a club that good may entice him to stay longer?

“That’s out of my hands in the future,” smiles Coetzee. “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.”

There is no doubt Coetzee wants to repay both the club and fans for being loyal and he can see the chance in Europe being the opportunity to do that.

“It’s a huge challenge this weekend, but one I am looking forward to and the team.

“If we play the way we want to play, cut down on mistakes then we can be dangerous.”

Having made a solid start to the season in the Guinness PRO14 with three wins and a draw, Ulster suffered back to back losses in Irish derbies.

The 64-7 loss in Limerick was a record defeat and last week there was more history made when Connacht won their first game in Belfast since 1960.

It is far from the ideal way to be going into the European Cup - particularly against an English Premiership side who has had successive wins.

From a mental state perspective, Coetzee insists there is a mature approach to it.

“We all have to come to just accept what it is, look at it as a new tournament, a fresh start,” he said.

“If there’s one tournament you want to stamp your authority on it’s this 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,” he added.

Coetzee accepted that discipline was one of the key factors in the loss to Connacht and he put his hand up accepting that his yellow card did not help things, especially when Matty Rea was red carded during the same sin-bin period, leaving Ulster with 13 players on the pitch at one stage.

“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 said.

“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,” he added.

The Ulster scrum creaked under pressure against Connacht last week and that will be one area Leicester will surely target this weekend.

“We had a hard look at ourselves going into the meeting earlier this week,” admitted Coetzee.

“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. And yes it is something which can be fixed.”