Marcell Coetzee aims to put his double World Cup disappointment behind him by starring for the Springboks against the British and Irish Lions in 2021.
Coetzee began the season late because of the ankle injury that ruled him out of consideration for the Bok squad that won the World Cup in such convincing style earlier this month.
He wasn’t part of his club’s convincing opening PRO 14 win over the Ospreys, and he had to watch his teammates get outplayed 63-26 by the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein a week later.
However, the former Sharks loose forward returned when Ulster won their second tour match against the Southern Kings. He has been in the thick of it ever since in helping the Irish side to second position in Conference A, with a narrow defeat to Johan van Graan’s Munster 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 helped his team’s momentum at the weekend by starring in the nail-biting win over Bath in the opening round of their Champions Cup campaign. A late intercept try clinched a one-point win for Ulster, but their defence laid the platform. As well as making 17 tackles, the eighthman also had 19 carries.
That performance and the preceding ones has helped Coetzee to bring some cheer back into his life after he admitted that he was pretty inconsolable when – for the second time in the space of four years – he emerged from a meeting with a Springbok coach realising his World Cup dream was over.
Coetzee, though, was given a chance to force his way into the 2019 World Cup squad after being selected to face Argentina in the final warm-up game on South African soil. He was forced off early through a concussion and it was later confirmed that he had suffered an ankle injury as well, which consequently ruled him out of selection for the tournament in Japan.
In 2015 Coetzee had to hear in a meeting with former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer that he was left out of the World Cup squad destined for England – a case of lightning strikes twice for the unfortunate loose forward.
‘It was very disappointing for me and it wasn’t the first time,’ added Coetzee. ‘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 some 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,’ said Coetzee. ‘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 his short-term focus is on helping Ulster to be successful in both competitions, Coetzee 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,’ continued Coetzee. ‘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, who boasts 30 Test caps, 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.’
Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen/Gallo Images