Coetzee’s switch to Bulls is a statement of intent

The newly-created Rainbow Cup may have already seen the birth of rugby’s first cross-hemisphere club rivalry, writes ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE.

As expected, the Vodacom Bulls’ Christmas day announcement of the signing of Springbok loose forward Marcell Coetzee has been met with consternation and indignation in Ireland.

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When the Bulls announced (via a not-so-subtle social media ‘surprise’) that Coetzee was returning to South Africa, it did not take long for the uproar to commence.

In his time at Ulster Coetzee has garnered hero status and established himself as one of the premier forwards in Europe. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that his departure was not particularly well-received by Ulster fans.

As is typical of people processing grief, shock and denial was followed by anger. Anger directed at Coetzee and at the Bulls.

Ulster Rugby’s CEO Jonny Petrie was quick to point fingers and tweeted saying he was ‘deeply frustrated’ and that the transfer was ‘entirely player (&Bulls) driven’. His response triggered a wave of understandably upset fans weighing in with their own opinions.

While most fans were supportive (if sad), some claimed that it was offsides for Coetzee to leave the club given that he still had a year left on his contract. Particularly given the club had stood by him during a sequence of bad injuries. Others balked at the way in which his departure was announced via the Bulls’ social media.

Yet, for South African fans, who have to endure almost weekly reports of their favourite players leaving domestic teams (usually mid-contract) to pursue a career in Europe, it is difficult to feel much sympathy.

European sides certainly do not deem it ‘disrespectful’ when a promising South African youngster chooses to leave the club that believed in him, invested time and resources in him and helped launch his career. Talk of ‘loyalty’ by some Ulster fans smacks of hypocrisy.

It is challenging too, to understand the sanctimony around how the transfer was announced. Nowadays it is typical for clubs to reveal signings via social media and there was nothing out of the ordinary about the way the Bulls went about it. It may have ruined Christmas in Belfast, but it made for a special one in Pretoria – so it’s really a matter of perspective.

For his own part Coetzee has cited personal reasons for returning, but even the least cynical person may raise an eyebrow. His return just before the British & Irish Lions series next year could easily be construed as a statement of intent.

Unlucky to miss out on the World Cup in 2019 there’s a sense Coetzee has unfinished business and feels that being back in South Africa might bolster his Bok aspirations.

If the newly created Rainbow Cup needed some drama then this may well be the catalyst. The Bulls are surely due an icy reception when they arrive at Kingspan Stadium and it could be well the birth of rugby’s first cross-hemisphere club rivalry.