From the mag: Lion-hearted Springbok

Marcell Coetzee will do everything in his power to tackle the British & Irish Lions with the Springboks in 2021, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Coetzee found himself in a fortunate position during the period of lockdown. With European competition placed on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Springbok found a home in the South African bush with his wife Chanelle.

Based at a guesthouse in Marloth Park, which borders the Kruger National Park, his daily routine included morning runs in the bush and regular interactions with wildlife, while some of the local community ‘donated’ equipment to be used for his gym work.

When SA Rugby magazine caught up with Coetzee via a Zoom video chat in mid-May, the sounds of birdlife served as a backing track to the interview, while we were briefly interrupted by the arrival of some passing impala. For his teammates and friends back at Irish club Ulster, Coetzee also put together a few video clips of his life in lockdown, which involved some extraordinary sightings of lions.

There was also an element of irony to those videos, considering Coetzee hopes he will be in a position to face Lions of a different variety next year when the revered British & Irish touring team heads to South Africa.

It again speaks to the fact Coetzee is a player of conviction and courage. When we last chatted to the dynamic loose forward, he opened up about overcoming serious injuries that threatened to force him into early retirement. Yet he resolutely refused to succumb to these setbacks and fought his way back into the Springbok squad, only for another injury, sustained in a World Cup ‘warm-up’ game against Argentina last year, to end his hopes of earning a ticket to Japan.

The 29-year-old reflects wistfully on that match, in which he received a blow to the head and an ankle injury that ultimately required surgical repair.

‘Yeah, that was demoralising. It was an opportunity to show the coaches and country what I could do and how much I wanted to be in Japan. But it wasn’t meant to be, I fell awkwardly and heard my ankle snap. I didn’t want to go off the field because I’d worked so hard to get there and this simple bit of misfortune was going to end my dream.

‘But time heals all wounds and I quickly went from being a player to becoming a Springbok supporter. It was amazing to see them go all the way to win the World Cup. Of course, it was difficult to be so close to the squad and then to not be able to be there as a player, but I just had to tell myself to be happy as a South African and that it wasn’t about me as an individual, which is what the Springboks are all about.’

It’s this ability to view the glass half-full that has enabled Coetzee to bounce back time and time again from troublesome injuries, while the taste of Test rugby last year reignited his desire to keep pushing forward.

When the abrasive back rower came off the bench in the Rugby Championship win over the Wallabies on 20 July 2019, it marked a return to Springbok action after a near four-year absence. He looks back on his recall to the national side and opportunity to pull on the green and gold jersey once again as nothing but a blessing.

‘I was really surprised when I got the call-up. We’d just finished our season with Ulster and had come back to South Africa for a holiday. I hadn’t heard anything from the Springboks and thought they were just backing the guys they had, which would have been totally understandable. Literally, the night before I was due to go back to Belfast, I got the call from Rassie Erasmus.

I was having a braai and I could barely believe it. It was phenomenal to suddenly be part of the mix again and be with mates who I’d played a lot of rugby with and against.

‘Then when I saw my name in the team again and I was going to get an opportunity to play off the bench against the Wallabies, it was emotional. A year before that, I thought my rugby career might have been at an end because of the injury misfortune I’d had and I couldn’t get any rhythm going.

‘It just reminded me to never give up, though, and I found myself thinking about all the people who had helped me get back to that point. In that Test against Australia, I played about 15 minutes off the bench, and enjoyed every second of it and tried to make the most of the opportunity. It was surreal to experience playing for the Springboks.’

Although Coetzee’s World Cup dream was ultimately dashed, his brief experience in a rejuvenated Springbok set-up reminded him of why he had worked so hard to keep his career alive.

‘When I think back to that, the first word that comes to mind is ‘unity’ within the team. Coming from the outside it was amazing to see how everyone gelled with guys from different provinces and others from overseas. I hadn’t been part of the mix for a long but just felt so at ease and the set-up was so professional.

‘Rassie made it abundantly clear what he wanted to achieve, which was to win the Rugby Championship and World Cup. Everyone was on board, the preparation was intense and all in all, you knew exactly where you stood and where the team was going.

‘Even though I was unable to go to the World Cup, I was confident the Boks were capable of winning it,’ Coetzee says. ‘They had all the hunger and motivation, and a really strong squad of players and leadership. I just knew that if the group stuck together and built momentum, they would be a real force. Ultimately they showed their character and resilience to go all the way after losing to the All Blacks in the first game and I couldn’t have been prouder.’

Even while the World Cup was on the go, Coetzee returned to action for Ulster and remained on standby for the Springboks should there have been an injury in the loose trio. Yet, while undergoing his post-operation rehabilitation, there was also time for some valuable introspection.

‘After missing out on the World Cup, I sat down and did some soul-searching, having accepted that door had closed. So when I thought about my goals and the next big thing to chase, the Lions tour immediately sprung to mind. It remains my goal to make it into the Bok squad for that series.

‘The Lions tour South Africa only every 12 years, so I’ve set out my plans to achieve that next goal. The first priority was just to get back to my club team and ensure I continued performing well, and then everything should fall in place. Putting the World Cup disappointment behind me, I realise there are other things to achieve and there is time to take the small steps towards the long-term goal of that Lions series. It is something that helps keep me motivated.’

Another curveball has been thrown by the unprecedented lockdown that left the game in uncharted territory. But with the opportunity to once again reflect, and this time in the serenity of the bush, Coetzee – as ever – maintains a positive outlook.

‘I’m fortunate we have acres of land here, so I’ve been able to keep quite fit and active. It’s been interesting when I’m on a run and come across a giraffe or there’s a baboon looking at you from the trees, but it’s been so enjoyable to be in the bush,’ he chuckles. ‘There is a lot of uncertainty, of course, but the only option is try to remain as professional as possible and make the best of a very difficult situation.’


Marcell Coetzee on …

Coping in the absence of action

It has provided an opportunity to rest the body a bit and to get over any niggles. So hopefully when we get the green light to play again I’ll be ready. The thing I’ve taken out of this is that you can’t control many things, but the one thing I can control is my attitude. So I wanted to tackle this unexpected break in the best way possible, physically and mentally. We have that time now to think about these things and what would put me in the best space when competition resumes.

What he could add to Bok side

At the moment South African rugby is blessed with phenomenal loose forwards playing in SA and overseas. There are lots of guys stepping up, so it’s all about what the coaches are looking for. With regard to my game, it’s about constantly working on any weaknesses. What I’ve always loved is the confrontational part of rugby, the collisions and breakdown, defence and so on. If the coaches think that can make a difference, hopefully it will go my way. I just want to contribute in any way I can if the opportunity comes. Each player has something different to offer and if I got the chance to play for the Boks again, it would be such a humbling experience.

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