‘That’s what your foreign players should be, big players that have big moments’

Murray Kinsella reports from Kingspan Stadium

MARCELL COETZEE’S FIRST two years with Ulster were a disaster, ruined by injury, but the South African back row has shown his immense quality throughout the current season.

The 27-year-old delivered his latest impressive showing yesterday as Ulster advanced into the semi-finals of the Guinness Pro14 for the first time since 2016 and there is little doubt that Coetzee has made a major difference in this campaign.

Coetzee scores the game-sealing try for Ulster yesterday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The 28-times capped Springbok has been like a new signing, largely staying injury free, and racking up 22 starts in the Pro14 and Champions Cup for Dan McFarland’s side.

Coetzee was sublime for Ulster against Connacht yesterday, powering over for the late try that sealed their victory, having earlier had a central role in creating Nick Timoney’s score with a wonderful offload.

The former Sharks man carried 24 times in total, regularly making big dents in the gainline despite having defenders in front of him, while also completing six passes and making 13 tackles.

“One of the reasons I love rugby is because it is about the team but there is no doubt that when it comes to play-off games at this level against an opposition of the quality of Connacht, you need big plays,” said McFarland after his team’s 21-13 win.

“Big players make big plays. Marcell will win collisions that most people in rugby just can’t win. I thought Connacht did a good job in their defence but both him and Iain Henderson consistently won collisions there and that’s so important.

“He’s just loving playing his rugby, that’s the biggest thing for him.”

Coetzee could have been playing elsewhere next season, having had offers from abroad, but instead he penned a new three-year contract with the province back in February, stressing that he wanted to repay the faith they have shown in him.

Ulster could yet lose the number eight in the early stages of next season if he gets an international recall. Earlier this week, Coetzee said that he hadn’t heard from Springboks boss Rassie Erasmus – despite having enjoyed such an outstanding season.

Coetzee playing for the Boks against Ireland in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

But if Erasmus watches Ulster’s win over Connacht – as he is likely to do – he will be more tempted than ever to pick up the phone to Coetzee. 

Asked if he’s hopeful Erasmus won’t be calling Coetzee before the World Cup, McFarland couldn’t resist a joke.

“Next question… No, Marcell is a great player and he wants to play for his country and that’s a great thing for any player. We would always encourage that and we would always want to see our players representing their country to the best of their ability.”

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Ulster’s players are simply delighting in seeing their team-mate fit and firing.

Having a man as powerful and impactful as Coetzee on their side is making a real difference this season and his presence will be key if Ulster are to beat Glasgow away in their Pro14 semi-final on 17 May.

“When we first signed him, we knew how good he was,” said Ulster captain Rory Best. “When we [Ireland] played them [South Africa] in the Aviva in 2014 and he handed off Jamie Heaslip, those moments, that’s the sort of player he is.

“We were joking that if I get the ball on the front foot, we can get parity and if I get it on the back foot, we end up going way backwards. He gets it and no matter what foot he’s on, he makes yards.

Coetzee has been brilliant at number eight. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Ultimately, that’s what your foreign players should be, big players that have big moments in big games.

“He’s a fantastic guy and the encouraging thing is the way the other backrowers play off him.

“We know how good Jordi Murphy is but Nick Timoney and Sean Reidy, even the Rea brothers, Greg Jones, they watch him and see what he does and try to emulate that.

“Again, your foreigners, that’s what you want from them.”

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