Marcell Coetzee can justifiably be called the forgotten man of Springbok rugby. He’s been plagued by knee troubles since breaking down on the eve of 2015 Rugby World Cup selection. The 27-year-old has only played five games for Ulster since joining them in 2016, and he had revision surgery on his ACL in October last year, sidelining him for a further nine months.
Had he been free from injury during this period of successive setbacks, Coetzee may have doubled his haul of 28 Test caps. It’s testament to the player’s pedigree that Ulster continue to back him, eagerly anticipating his imminent return to the field.
With fewer than 20 Tests remaining between now and the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Bok coach Rassie Erasmus will be keeping close tabs on the flanker’s injury status.
A rare breed of loose forward, Coetzee can genuinely fit in anywhere across the back row. As a junior, he played mostly at No 8 where his energy and commitment was showcased, but stout ball-carrying and natural strength made him a sensible blindside option too.
Heyneke Meyer gave Coetzee his Springbok blazer in 2012, rewarding the flanker’s formidable work rate with a berth at openside. Meyer did the same with Siya Kolisi and it must be said that Coetzee displayed more aptitude for the foraging attributes needed in the role.
That was then. Now, Kolisi captains the Springboks in the No 6 jersey famously donned by Madiba during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. A welcome wave of optimism has swept over South African rugby lovers.
Prior to this new dawn, Warren Whiteley was touted as the player to take the helm. But injury put paid to that idea and Kolisi, along with vice-captain Duane Vermeulen, led the Boks to a remarkable come-from-behind win against England last week.
This momentum surely won’t be jeopardised by installing Whiteley as captain when he’s fit again. Doing so would be a monumental misreading of national sentiment.
Sentiment, however, doesn’t win matches. Whiteley’s a fine player and a wonderful leader but, realistically, if he isn’t captain, is there a place for him in the new era’s ideal Springbok starting back row?
One of Allister Coetzee’s major flaws was the inability to find necessary balance to Bok combinations. In 2016, the Springboks lost to Italy with a loose trio of Nizaam Carr, Willem Alberts and Whiteley; to England with Alberts, Pieter Steph Du Toit and Whiteley; and to Wales with Carr, Uzzair Cassiem and Whiteley. The Boks won that year whenever Vermeulen was in the mix.
Whiteley then broke down mid-2017. Yet, even before that injury, many questioned whether Coetzee’s apparent first-choice combo of Kolisi, Oupa Mohoje and Whiteley was the optimum triumvirate. Whiteley and Kolisi are at their stand-out best when they’re in full flight, attacking from the outside in. Having both of them in the same starting back row could tip the scales and rob the loose trio of crucial grunt.
To counter this, there’s talk of Vermeulen switching to the blindside when Whiteley returns, but Whiteley and the dynamic Jaco Kriel add the most value off the bench, running at tiring defensive lines.
The ultimate combination, one that would allow Kolisi to play his natural game, features the all-rounder ability of Marcell Coetzee and Vermeulen’s game management and abrasiveness.
Vermeulen’s positional play and defensive marshalling at No 8 are exceptional and it makes sense to retain him there, where he’s most comfortable and effective. Keep the symbolic No 6 jersey on Kolisi’s back, but play Coetzee at openside whenever necessary to make use of his foraging skills, and dovetail the two flankers on defence and attack like David Pocock and Michael Hooper do for the Wallabies.
Follow Daryn on Twitter: @KatzDaryn
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