Coetzee’s playing with freedom

The Lions have brought the best out of Andries Coetzee, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Lions fullback Andries Coetzee readily acknowledges that a professional rugby career once appeared to be an unattainable dream.

Born in the small town of Bethal in Mpumalanga, and having attended HTS Middelburg, Coetzee has traversed a rather winding route to the top, and admits to being a ‘late bloomer’ when it came to making his mark on the rugby scene.

‘I always loved rugby more than cricket, but I was quite a skinny guy when I was a boy, and I thought maybe cricket was better suited to me,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘During my early school days I played rugby for the B team at U14, U15 and U16 levels. I thought cricket might be the way to go, but rugby was always my big love.’

However, Coetzee eventually began to show progress and promise on the rugby field, featuring for the Pumas in the 2008 U18 Craven Week. After school he made the move to Stellenbosch, where he hoped to break into the Maties Varsity Cup side.

‘I spent a year in Stellenbosch, but I was unable to make it into the team,’ he says. ‘I came up to Pretoria at that point and thought about focusing on my studies at Tuks, but my family encouraged me to give rugby a go for one more year, and it all happened from there.’

Having starred for Tuks as they finished as runners-up in the 2011 Varsity Cup, Coetzee was given the opportunity to join the Lions. It marked the start of a journey he says has been rewarding and challenging.

In 2012, then Lions coach John Mitchell handed Coetzee his senior debut as a replacement against the Sharks in a Super Rugby clash at Ellis Park. He would go on to start in the next 11 games – three on the left wing and eight at fullback.

However, an ankle injury cut Coetzee’s season short, and while he would recover in time to feature in 10 Currie Cup matches during the 2012 season, it had become an uncertain time at Ellis Park.

Even before the end of Super Rugby, Mitchell was relieved of his post under controversial circumstances, while in August it was confirmed the Lions had been relegated from Super Rugby to make way for the Kings.

Nevertheless, Coetzee received an opportunity to play Super Rugby in 2013 when the injury-hit Sharks snapped him up on loan, but misfortune struck again when he suffered a shoulder injury in his first game for the Durban-based side.

‘It was a big chance for me to prove myself at the Sharks and maybe start a career there, but unfortunately I got that injury in the game just before we were set to go on tour. But while I was disappointed, I kept my head up and came back to the Lions. Everyone was in the same boat in terms of placing our focus on the Currie Cup, and in hindsight perhaps it was all for the best.’

Although Coetzee endured another injury-plagued 2014 season, it was during last year’s Super Rugby campaign that he was finally able to enjoy an extended run as the Lions commendably finished in eighth place, while he then featured prominently in their unbeaten run to the 2015 Currie Cup title.

‘Andries is one of the best fullbacks I’ve worked with, if not the best,’ Lions backline coach Swys de Bruin says. ‘He’s got everything – he’s quick, he’s strong and has a big left boot. I’m really surprised he hasn’t been called up for higher honours as yet, but I’m sure his time will come.’

While adding utility value with his ability to play in virtually any position in the backline, it’s clear Coetzee has found his preferred position at fullback.

‘Andries is such a talented player, but we want to settle him down at fullback; I think that’s his best position,’ De Bruin says. ‘He reminds me a lot of Jouba [former Bok great André Joubert]. He’s got a quiet personality, but he’s matured a lot and reads the game well.

‘He’s reliable at the back, but his counter-attacking ability is also a strength and he can pick up when there’s a mismatch. To me, he is the epitome of a Lions player – he doesn’t moan, no matter what you ask of him. He works extremely hard at training, and puts in the extra hard yards. He’s a very special player and character.’

Having recently turned 26, Coetzee is clearly thriving in the Lions’ environment and has got to the point where he feels comfortable about his game.

‘The environment is set by the coaches, they give us the freedom to play what you see,’ he says. ‘We try to avoid giving possession back to the opposition and then having to defend. I enjoy that style of rugby and I think you play your best when you’re happy and enjoying the environment, and that’s how I feel.

‘It’s just been a special experience to be part of the Lions’ progression,’ he adds. ‘No one gave us a chance [when the Lions were relegated from Super Rugby], but I wanted to stay and it feels great to see how far we’ve come. I can’t see myself playing anywhere else at the moment.’

– This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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