Once again our friends at Sharksworld have come to our aid with the inside track on our latest signing. Many thanks to Rob Otto for the article and Steve Haag of stevehaagsports.com for providing the picture.
When the news of Marcell Coetzee’s move to Ulster at the end of the current Super Rugby season emerged, it’s probably fair to say that Sharks fans moved pretty quickly from the initial shock and disbelief to resigned disappointment. After all, this sort of thing is becoming all too familiar in South African rugby of late and a player of Coetzee’s calibre would always be a prime target.
Coetzee has always been a very special player to Sharks fans – representing that rarest of breeds in the modern game, the true “home grown hero”. Growing up in one of Durban’s less fashionable neighbourhoods, Coetzee had to fight for every honour that came his way and was regularly overlooked for age-group teams en route to a senior rugby debut – at just 20 years of age – that was as unlikely as it was impressive.
A hard, honest grafter throughout a schoolboy career that had never shown any real signs of taking off, Coetzee missed out on a junior contract in Durban after school and had to pay his own way through the Sharks Academy in his first year. Meteoric rises don’t come more meteoric than Coetzee’s from 2010 to 2012, though as over the course of just under two years he went from an uncontracted under 19 player to a capped Springbok (with two full seasons of Super Rugby for the Sharks under his belt as well).
In a team (and a country) always blessed in terms of loose forward resources, it can be hard to stand out, but Marcell Coetzee has somehow always managed to find a niche for himself through a combination of adaptability and extreme work rate. Regularly topping the statistics in terms of tackles made, as well as overall contributions, when he plays, he’s the kind of player that is very hard for a coach to overlook.
Over the course of his still relatively short career, he has played professionally in each of the three back row positions and it’s a testament to that versatility and adaptability that he’s made the transition from number 8 in his youth, via blindside flank, to the specialist opensider role that he now most regularly performs. His record speaks for itself – at the time of writing, he’s amassed nearly 70 Super Rugby caps and over 25 test appearances, despite being a few months shy of his 25th birthday.
How, then, do we feel about losing him? As I’ve already said, most of us are pretty resigned to the fact that losing star players in their prime is likely to become more of a rule than an exception.
Giving up a player of Coetzee’s calibre is a bitter blow indeed, not least because of his recent elevation to the squad captaincy. The Sharks have endured a few lean seasons and the one constant, the one player on whom you could always rely was Marcell Coetzee. He was considered a key part of the Sharks revival in years to come and while there may be plenty of other options available in a large squad of back rowers, it’s the character of the man that will be missed the most.
South African rugby faces something of a crisis at the moment, as an uncertain economic outlook (and a tumbling Rand) has led to an increasing number of players seeking better options overseas.
This has, of course, been going on in one form or another for some time, with a veritable host of Sharks stalwarts opting to move to Ulster and other clubs over the last few years. The trend, though, has typically been for players to move on towards the ends of their careers; certainly, few Sharks fans would have begrudged the likes of Stefan Terblanche or Johann Muller the opportunity to earn a few pounds in later life after the countless years of dedicated service given to the province.
Nowadays, younger players – and those who still have much to accomplish in the South African game – are making the move. We lost Wiehahn Herbst to Ulster well before his true value had been realised, with the same applying to Louis Ludick and Ruan Pienaar. Those three pale into insignificance, though, when compared to Coetzee, a player at the peak of his game and in the prime of his life.
Reality is that, at something like R23 to the Pound, Ulster have been able to put an offer in front of Coetzee that is well beyond the abilities of the Sharks to counter. While the player has his own preferences (and would not choose leave Durban, all other things being equal), the financial reality very soon sinks in and just as any young man faced with a short career (and a long future to plan for) would do, Marcell Coetzee has taken the option that is eminently the most sensible one.
What of the Boks, though? Again, that is a factor that arguably makes it easier for Coetzee to leave right now, since after his frankly ridiculous exclusion from last year’s World Cup squad, Coetzee is understandably completely in the dark regarding his future at national level. Coach Heyneke Meyer (who appeared to back Coetzee right up until World Cup selection, when he unexpectedly dropped him) has fallen on his sword, but with no progress being made in appointing a successor in over three months, it’s understandable that Coetzee has opted to cut his losses for the time being.
After all, we simply don’t know whether the new coach will be as willing as the old one to pick foreign-based players for his Test squads and even if that policy is ended, Coetzee is more than young enough to return to South Africa (a more experienced and better player for his Ulster stint) in time to qualify for the next World Cup.
If I could be so bold as to speak for Sharks fans, I think we all agree in wishing Marcell well for his new adventure. There could not be a better club for him to join than Ulster, a club that many Sharks fans consider their favourite in Europe, given just how many of our players have ended up there. We will manage without Marcell, grudgingly, for the next three seasons, trusting that you will send him back to us in 2019 in better shape than you got him, but please be aware just how truly special this young man is and take him and his lovely wife into your hearts. Marcell Coetzee is the sort of man to repay you, many times over, through his performances on the rugby field.
Stand up for Marcell Coetzee, one who is sure to become one of your very favourite Ulsterman, just as he was, is and always will be one of our very favourite Sharks.
Rob Otto is a lifelong fan of the Natal Sharks, having followed their trials and tribulations, boy and man, for 26 years and counting. Born and raised in the Republic, he now lives in Kent in the UK and has been the owner and chief writer of the Sharksworld website for eight years. Sharksworld has grown, from humble beginnings, to become the premier independent site anywhere in the world for fans of the Sharks rugby team and you can read more of Rob’s writing daily on www.sharksworld.co.za.