Springbok loose forward Marcell Coetzee has overcome three knee injuries that threatened to force him into early retirement, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Finally! Finally Coetzee has been able to enjoy an extended run of injury-free rugby, and he is making the most of it. In many ways, it resembled a return to Coetzee’s heyday at the Sharks when he was known as a loose forward with an insatiable work rate.
He’s always been the sort of player who seemingly pops up from nowhere to complete a crucial tackle or win an important turnover while never shirking from the rough stuff when it comes to hitting the breakdown or punching above his weight as a ball-carrier.
Over the course of a memorable 2018-19 season for Irish club Ulster, Coetzee has sent out an unequivocal reminder that he ain’t done yet after recovering from a series of debilitating knee injuries. The versatile back row is living up to the reputation of a 28-Test cap Springbok and is being spoken of in a national context once again.
Coetzee’s story of fortitude and fighting spirit is worth telling, but it requires us to rewind to 2016 and his arrival at Ulster.
‘At that stage, I’d been playing in South Africa for six years and I’d unfortunately missed out on World Cup selection in 2015, so I felt like it was the right time for a change,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine.
Although Coetzee arrived in Ireland with great expectations, he also did so nursing a serious ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) knee injury suffered in his final Vodacom Super Rugby match for the Sharks against the Lions.
‘To be honest, joining Ulster with an injury was a bit of a dampener on the whole mood because I obviously had to do a lot of rehab work and wasn’t able to make my club debut as quickly as I’d hoped,’ he says.
Desperate to make the most of difficult circumstances, though, Coetzee and his new wife Chanelle began to embrace their new surroundings, despite facing a few stark reality checks.
‘The first thing that hit us was how cold it can get, because we were coming from Durban, where it feels like summer all year around,’ he says with a wry chuckle. ‘Thankfully, the people here made us feel at home. The Irish are very friendly. Ireland is also pretty central in terms of providing the opportunity to travel and broaden our horizons. My wife and I love travelling, so being able to easily head to a number of new European destinations added to the experience.’
After an extensive nine-month rehabilitation, Coetzee eventually made his comeback, but just as he was beginning to build some confidence, he next suffered damage to his medial meniscal cartilage.
More surgery and another lengthy period on the sidelines followed until he was able to return to action, against the Cheetahs towards the end of 2017. Yet, disaster struck once again as Coetzee stretched his ACL.
Desperately disappointed, the loose forward returned to Cape Town for a second opinion, but was told that another operation and nine-month period of rehabilitation would be required.
‘I’m not going to lie to you, I was staring retirement in the face,’ Coetzee says. ‘When I heard I’d stretched my ACL again, I thought this isn’t looking good for me. I knew I’d have to miss another season and then go through rehab and prove myself worthy all over again. There was a lot of pressure and challenges to overcome.’
Despite some of these doubts, the 28-year-old took the decision to keep the faith and undergo surgery for the third time in as many years.
‘I was so confused at the time,’ Coetzee says. ‘I’d been so blessed up to that point in terms of not having any serious injuries and then I had three in a row, two being massive. I just wondered what was happening. But my faith carried me through, and I have to compliment my wife because I admit I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around at that time.
‘Obviously, being out of the game you are so passionate about puts a dampener on your soul, but she stuck with me through the tough times and gave me the moral support I needed. My family and friends were also very important and helped me stay strong.’
Adding to the pressure was the fact Coetzee’s three-year contract with Ulster was coming to an end. Yet, in timely fashion, the industrious forward made another comeback in a Pro14 clash last September and went from strength to strength.
‘I think everyone would agree that at the beginning of the season, they could see I was slowly needing to rebuild my confidence and momentum,’ he says. ‘Because of my injuries, there was a mental barrier to overcome to rediscover my confidence, and it almost felt like I had to learn my whole game again.
‘The game had also changed during that period I was out of action; it got faster, and defences and attacks were different. But the muscle memory kicked in and it got easier as each game went by.’
Indeed, it didn’t take long for Coetzee to make up for lost time, while illustrating to Ulster what they’d been missing out on during his injury-enforced absences.
‘Ulster had to make a decision to keep backing me or not and I honestly thought they were going to let me go. I’d come to them with an injury and had played very little rugby.
‘It bothered me not being able to contribute and give back to them, but surprisingly they came and said, “You know what, we’ve seen something in you and want to keep backing you.” That motivated me to work hard to get back to fitness, and all the medical and management staff were really good to me. My biggest motivation going into the season was to reward that investment in me.’
In February, it was confirmed that Coetzee had agreed to a three-year contract extension after a sequence of influential performances in the Pro14 and European Champions Cup. However, he admits it wasn’t a simple decision to make.
‘As much as I enjoy it over here, I’m a passionate South African and miss our country and family. And it’s the same for my wife. The plan was to come here for three years, to grow as a player and then head back home. However, given the circumstances that changed my path completely, I felt it was the right thing to do to stick with the club and try to learn more with them. The biggest thing for me is I’m enjoying the game again and living for every second.’
Coetzee remains one of those rare loose forwards who is capable of playing across all three positions, but has primarily been deployed at No 8 over the past season.
‘Ulster like the flexibility I possess, and although I’d predominantly played at flank before joining the club, it’s been a good learning curve spending time at No 8,’ he says. ‘I’ve developed confidence there and it’s helped me develop my game to interlink with the No 9 and backline. It does require a different skill set, but ultimately my role doesn’t really change; I love to carry the ball, tackle and get stuck in at the breakdown.’
Coetzee’s irrepressible form has understandably led to heightened calls for Rassie Erasmus to consider offering the Ulster star a long-awaited recall to the Springbok setup in a World Cup year.
In typically unassuming fashion, though, Coetzee isn’t getting ahead of himself. At the time of our interview, he still hadn’t heard from the Bok coach, but remained content just to be injury-free and enjoying his rugby. However, a few weeks after our conversation, the dynamic loose forward duly received a call-up to the national squad.
‘It will always be a passion of mine to get back into the Bok squad. To represent my country is the pinnacle and I’ll always be open to that if they think I’m good enough. But I’m just taking it day by day, and trying to ensure I’m in the best form and as fit as possible. Considering what I’ve been through, I’d never take it for granted if that call-up should come.’
REPAYING THE FAITH
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland on Coetzee’s contract extension: ‘Marcell has been phenomenal for us this season and it’s a massive boost for us that he has chosen to remain at the club, even with significant interest from other clubs. He’s been through some difficult times since he arrived here and I’m delighted he’s got a good run of games and performed at the level we know he’s capable of. At his age, we believe we are yet to witness some of his best rugby.
‘Marcell provides real presence on and off the field, and is an example of what determination and persistence can achieve. His influence and knowledge as an experienced international player have been great for our young players and he will continue to play a key role in helping to develop our forwards.’