Marcell Coetzee has developed into a truly world-class player, writes RYAN VREDE.
Often you learn more from the careful observation of human beings than you do by interacting with them. This has certainly been my experience with Marcell Coetzee. The measure of the man is that he is infinitely more impressive to watch at work than he is speaking about himself or his profession.
The Springboks were filtering into the team hotel from their morning training session in Edinburgh on the 2012 end-of-year tour, a session the media had been allowed to watch. Coetzee was one of the last through the doors. I was impressed he made it back at all, given he had just put in a level of effort that surpassed even the highest expectations of coach Heyneke Meyer.
Meyer had settled in next to me for a coffee and the conversation gradually drifted towards the youngster on his first international tour.
‘He is special, very special,’ Meyer said. ‘There is nothing flashy about him. He is as down to earth as they come. He’s just a kid who has dreamed about being a Springbok for as long as he’s played the game. Now he is living his dream and is leaving nothing to chance. He gives absolutely everything, sometimes to the point where I fear for his health.’
I’d seen Coetzee train like that in Dublin a week before and would again marvel at his efforts in London a week later. When probed about this in a media huddle he didn’t understand the fuss because he knew no other way to train. Indeed, any time he was offered up to the media it was a challenge, not because he had anything against the media, but because he didn’t feel like he’d earned the right, through the consistency and strength of his performances, to speak about himself.
Others had no such issue. Francois Louw held court for a feature on himself for SA Rugby magazine, but I found myself constantly having to steer the conversation away from his glowing appraisal of Coetzee and back to the matter at hand.
‘He’s a freak,’ Louw said. ‘So bloody strong and incredibly fit. He keeps going and going. He is hitting you as hard at the end of a contact session as he was at the beginning. I’ve been incredibly impressed by him. The guys have spoken among themselves; there are some concerned loose forwards around the camp. He has forced an elevation in all of our [loose forwards] standards, which is a trait all world-class youngsters share. As players you know when a kid is the real deal. Marcell Coetzee is the real deal.’
Coetzee spent a lot of his time on that tour with fellow rookies Eben Etzebeth and Arno Botha. The three forged a friendship during their time with the Junior Boks. Serious injuries have meant Etzebeth and Botha have subsequently fallen behind Coetzee in their development as Test players. Their young bodies have not negotiated the demands of professional rugby at its elite levels nearly as well as Coetzee’s has. Where they seem to be built from sticks and stones, Coetzee appears to have a layer of Kevlar just below the epidermis.
When you consider he is eternally stuck in overdrive, the fact that he has, to date, not sustained a serious injury is astounding. Combine this with his exceptional technical ability, a growing level of game intelligence, solid temperament and raw determination and you have a formidable player.
There is, however, imminent danger looming when it comes to Coetzee. Meyer called it back in that hotel lobby.
‘He’ll be an 80-plus cap Springbok, probably a centurion, if we look after him physically. With some players you worry about their lifestyle away from the game and how it will affect their careers. I don’t have any worries like that about Marcell. The only thing that scares me is that he will be played into the ground [at the Sharks]. I was a franchise coach so I know how difficult it is to leave your best players out. Also, they don’t want to rest, they can’t see why they need to. It’s a difficult balance to strike in an environment where winning consistently is everything.’
Meyer’s fears were not unfounded as since then Coetzee has played without an adequate break (he started the Sharks’ first six matches this season before sitting out their round-seven match against the Force). The Kevlar is thinning by the day. The breaking point can’t be far away. At the start of April, Warren Whiteley was the only South African forward to have played more Super Rugby minutes than Coetzee in 2015. The next current Bok loose forward, Duane Vermeulen, was nearly a full 80 minutes behind.
Hopefully Coetzee will defy medical science and walk an injury-free path in the years ahead. Certainly he is critical to the Sharks’ hopes of breaking their Super Rugby curse. He has become an invaluable member of the Springbok match 23, whether as a starter or impact player, roles he fills with equal competence.
Him being fit to contest the World Cup in England will be crucial. Even at 23 (he turns 24 in May) and just 26 Tests into his career, his absence at the global showpiece would make the mission to win a third title a significantly more arduous one than it already is.
SHARKS DIRECTOR OF RUGBY GARY GOLD ON COETZEE
‘I’ve always admired Marcell from afar and getting the opportunity to work with him has been a privilege. I can’t say I was surprised by how he went about his work in training. He always struck me as the type of kid who would give it his all. What was an eye-opener was just how talented he is. You only see this if you work with a player day in and day out. His gift is incredible. He is a key player for us and will be for the Springboks for many years to come.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine