As Ulster prepare for their opening match in this season’s European campaign, it has been confirmed that Marcell Coetzee is back in South Africa to seek medical advice on a reoccurring knee injury.

The former Natal Sharks star picked up an injury in training after the opening game against the Cheetahs and was unavailable for the trip to Treviso the following week.

With a return-to-play date unclear, it leaves Ulster in a sticky situation.

Coetzee has only featured five times over the two seasons he has been at the province. His physical and destructive ball carrying ability has been something that Ulster fans have fantasied about since the unfortunate retirement of Stephen Ferris in June 2014.

While his five appearances, with the exception of one appearance against Glasgow, have not been against the league’s top teams Ulster have recorded victories in all of the games. It is evident that his presence is felt during the game and his noticeable leadership qualities lead him to quickly become a fan favourite for the captaincy at the start of the season.

A 28-capped South African international forward does not come cheap. Cancelling his contract will not be at the forefront of the minds of the management team at Ulster Rugby, particularly when there’s not a suitable replacement available. Even if there was a quality player available, it is unlikely that the IRFU would sanction a third non-Irish qualified back row.

Back row has been a problem in recent history for Ulster. However, the injury to Ulster’s marquee player has encouraged Les Kiss and his back room staff to give Matthew Rea and Nick Timoney a chance in the starting team. Rea, 24 and Timoney, 22, made their first starts this season and have not looked out of place in the Ulster first team though both are ball players rather than the destructive force of the likes of Coetzee and Ferris.

With Timoney now on the treatment table for an extended period of time, Les may look towards Banbridge’s Caleb Montgomery who has been impressing in Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League and put in a solid performance for Ulster in the pre-season fixture against Wasps.

Perhaps, due to the physical demands of the robust game that Coetzee (and Ferris in his day) play, Ulster need to start thinking about adapting their game to suits their players rather than trying to change their players to play a type of game they are not suited for. The bulking up of Chris Henry and Robbie Diack, who were both excellent ball players in their early days, being cases’ in point.

Two exciting players when they broke onto the scene, now lost in the bulked up mediocrity of the many manufactured players that this modern game seems to think is the way forward.

Biff, bash, bosh – don’t you just love it!

#SUFTUM