Just when you thought the worst thing that could happen in the festive season was the Mrs. Brown’s boys Christmas special, Marcell Coetzee’s announced departure came in the form of a ‘cryptic’ tweet from the Bulls on Christmas evening.
It didn’t take a team of code-breakers from Bletchley Park to work out that the “biggest festive gift” to the Bull’s fanbase was, in fact, Ulster’s superstar Springbok.
To state the obvious, Ulster will struggle without their talisman, one of the best back-row players in the world.
I’ve never subscribed to the view that Ulster must be exclusively a “local club for local people”. Ulster must supplement home-grown players with world-class talent in order to compete at the highest level in Europe.
However, we can’t expect these players to stick around forever. Modern rugby careers are short and brutal.
Ulster Rugby stuck by Coetzee throughout two seasons blighted by injury. In return, he has become a totemic figure, fully embracing Ulster’s ‘fight for every inch’ mentality.
As fans, we can choose to decry the increasingly mercenary nature of professional rugby or we can celebrate that Ulster was home to one of the best players in the world, albeit for not as long as we would have liked.
“Things will undoubtedly be different, let’s make them better.”
Dan McFarland and co will have to have a serious think about how Ulster will look in the PC (post-Coetzee) era. Such was Coetzee’s impact and ability to provide an attacking platform, Ulster may have to work out an entirely new game-plan.
Ulster’s CEO alluded to the fact Ulster will turn their attention to finding a replacement. Of course, Ulster will first consider their options internally to find someone capable of stepping into Coetzee’s massive boots. However, there has also been some early indication that, despite financial difficulties caused by the pandemic, Ulster will seek recruit from outside the province.
Here are a few options:
The 6ft 5in, 18 stone forward is a similarly destructive ball carrier with an amazing offload. Mata’s current contract at Edinburgh expires at the end of the 2020/21 season. He has x-factor and the ability to get over the gain-line. Unfortunately however, France has been reported as being his preferred destination.
This one’s a long shot. Fifita has played 12 tests for the All Blacks and can play second-row or back-row. Also 6ft 5in and close to 18 stone, Fifita would bring physicality and athleticism to the Ulster pack. He has been in and out of form in his career and was dropped by the All-Blacks. He’s now 28 years old and may fancy playing in the Northern hemisphere but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.
21 years old, No. 8., Irish qualified. Younger brother of Jack Willis who was reportedly in talks with Ulster and is now widely considered to be one of the best back rows in the Premiership.
Turnover machine, great physicality but a very different player to Coetzee. Can do it all but perhaps not as destructive as a ball-carrier.
There is a lot of competition in Wasps back-row although recent injuries may mean Tom may get more minutes. Wasps are in a precarious financial position (like most clubs) so may have to offload players. Could be a good option for Ulster if he wanted to pursue international rugby with Ireland.
I’ve opted for Deegan as the most likely option of the overflow Leinster’s conveyor belt of talent in the back-row. There are many others who may fancy a move up North in pursuit of game-time, but this move would appear to make most sense for Deegan and Ulster.
Deegan is athletic, rapid, versatile (can play across all 3 back-row positions), good ball-carrier and has good hands. He’s also solid defensively and brings a huge amount of energy to the team. Again, a very different type of player to Coetzee but could be an exciting signing if he wants greater opportunity to be put in the shop window for Ireland.
Plays in New Zealand for Crusaders but is Irish qualified and attended Blackrock College with Nick Timoney. Former back-row currently playing as a tight-head. He’s a big physical presence, standing at 6ft 4 and tips the scales at 20 stone.
It’s a bit of a left-field option but might it be possible to bring him to Ulster and convert him back into a number 8? He has the size and mobility to play at 8 and would bring sheer brute strength into Ulster’s pack. He may not want the move back to Ireland though as there had been some talk of an All Blacks call-up. He’s firmly in the ‘maybe’ pile.
Nick Timoney (and other internal options)
The obvious choice on the back of impressive form for Ulster. Timoney, a pacey former Ireland Sevens forward, is a different proposition to Coetzee. He is powerful and athletic, can create line-breaks, has good hands and brings enormous energy and work-rate in defence.
Nick can play across the back-row (and the wing on at least one occasion) which is always handy. He will seek to hold onto the 8 shirt when Coetzee leaves and anyone who tries to take it from him is in for a fight.
David McCann is one of Ulster’s hottest prospects. He appears to be destined for big things however strikes me as more of a 6 or 7 rather than an 8.
Similarly, Azur Allison is very highly rated and will surely get his chance in the coming weeks and months. He is young and it would be unfair to put all the weight of expectation on his shoulders just yet. Naturally, he will take time to develop and should have cameo appearances before becoming the main event in years to come.
Greg Jones has deputized well and has already racked up 20 appearances for Ulster.
Ulster may seek to utilize some combination of the above in the short-term. However, it has been apparent in games Coetzee has been absent that we lack dedicated destructive ball carriers. Sometimes you just need a power athlete like Coetzee to hit it up, take a few defenders with him and give the team a platform to attack from.
Iain Henderson may be used more at 6 to give him more freedom to ball-carry when Coetzee isn’t around.
Many Ulster fans quite rightly point out that we must give home-grown young players a chance. Others want to see a big name signing.
In my humble opinion, these options are not mutually exclusive.
Precious non-Irish qualified spots must go to high quality foreign imports who can supplement the team and elevate Ulster to the next level. There will still be plenty of opportunity for young players to learn and develop.
In any event, I hope you join me in wishing Marcell Coetzee well when it eventually comes time for him to depart. He put in an unbelievable shift and there is still work to be done. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ #SUFTUM #thanksmarcell