Coetzee can use PRO14 as Lions series springboard

Marcell Coetzee’s return to action is a major reason why South African interest in the PRO14 should continue when the tournament resumes this weekend.

The arrival of Springbok World Cup-winners RG Snyman and Damian de Allende at Munster will doubtless headline the South African interest as the PRO14 restarts at the weekend, but there is reason to think that ‘Ulsterman’ Coetzee should demand even more focus.

That reason is that Francois Louw, the man who effected the turnover penalty that got the Boks out of jail in the World Cup semi-final against Wales, doubled his appearance off the replacements’ bench in the Yokohama final as his international rugby swansong.

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Arguably there are some players in South Africa, such as the Vodacom Bulls’ Marco van Staden, who could fill the close-to-the-ground scavenger role that Louw performed so well, but it is debatable that any other South African is as accomplished in that specialist fetching role as the experienced Coetzee.

The product of Durban’s Port Natal Hoërskool was the most unlucky member of the national squad that prepared for last year’s World Cup, with his one opportunity to play himself into the group that travelled to Japan being cruelly scuppered by the injury that forced him from the field early in the warm-up Test against Argentina in Pretoria.

It is debatable whether Coetzee would have made the squad as coach Rassie Erasmus already had his group in mind, but it was the second time that Coetzee was frustratingly ruled out by injury from competing for a place in the final World Cup squad. It happened to him in the buildup to the 2015 tournament in England, too, a period when he was playing particularly good rugby.

Like many South Africans campaigning overseas and in the PRO14 in particular, Coetzee has grown since then. If he can get over his injury problems and return to top form for Ulster in this last month of the 2019-20 PRO14 season, and then carry it into 2020-21 starting shortly, he must surely come into reckoning for the Bok spot left vacant by Louw.

Coetzee did say after he was injured last August that he was determined to make up for the disappointment of missing out on another World Cup by featuring for the Boks in the iconic 2021 series against the British & Irish Lions and this is his opportunity.

He won’t be alone, though, for the PRO14, which is played across the broadest base of nations represented in the Lions squad – Ireland, Scotland and Wales are three of the four Lions tour-party components – will feature players from both sides who will be looking at next July’s series as their goal.

That pair weren’t shy to admit during last year’s World Cup that the PRO14 provided a finishing-school opportunity for their coaching education in their two years guiding Munster and they know just what a good testing ground for international rugby the competition is.

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They’ve maintained that interest since their return to South Africa in 2018 just because there are so many expats playing in the competition. But with the Lions tour on the horizon, and Lions coach Warren Gatland sure to draw the bulk of his squad from the northern-hemisphere league competition that has the biggest base, there is reason to be extra interested now as Erasmus and Nienaber can run their eyes over potential Lions series opponents as well as the emerging northern coaching trends that Gatland might be paying attention to.

The 2019-20 PRO14 season will be completed over the next month, with a clutch of league games in a shortened competition leading into a round of knockout games. Defending champions Leinster were strong favourites to retain their title before the pandemic as they were unbeaten in this northern-hemisphere season in any competition, but it will be interesting to see if that landscape has changed after the break.

Leinster face a tricky restart in a weekend of derby matches as they host arch-rivals Munster, coached by former Bok and Bulls assistant Johann van Graan, and potentially with De Allende and Snyman in tow, in the feature game on Saturday night (8:35pm).

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