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There is a boyish charm about Marcell Coetzee and his enthusiasm about making his debut for the Springboks that disarms you, and then you realise just how heartfelt his excitement really is, considering he only turned 21 last month.
From obscurity to replacing no less a luminary than Heinrich Brussow as the Springbok openside flank (he will start on Saturday at No 6 against England in Durban) is an indication of how rapidly his shares have risen on the Springbok stock exchange, and coach Heyneke Meyer has picked him not only on what he sees in Super Rugby but on what is backed up by cold, hard facts – Coetzee has consistently been in the top five of all Super Rugby players (about 400 of them), for Most Tackles, Most Ball Carries and Most Turnovers.
That is why he has deposed Brussow.
“It is very humbling and it shows the belief of the coach and the responsibility for me to perform, but Heinrich will fight back, I know he will be breathing down my neck,” the youngster said. “I guess the coach has seen something he can work with and I don’t want to let him down.”
In fact, Meyer has said that he wants to depart from an out-and-out fetcher and employ a more versatile opensider, one that can carry as well as win ball on the ground.
“I am comfortable with that role,” Coetzee says. “I started out as a No 8 so have had ball-carrying ability and I love the defence side of the game. I am not shy of the physical stuff. When (Sharks coach) John Plumtree moved me to No 6, my feeling was that I should not change any part of the game that got me to where I am – I just wanted to concentrate on my attributes and try to add the extras the coach wanted.
“Heyneke and Plum feel I can play openside so I will go with it. At the top you have to show what you are made of and play to what impressed the selectors.”
While he is reticent about the likelihood of him starting on Saturday, he is not shy to disclose how he would approach an opportunity to get on the field.
“If you play for your country you will always find another gear you did not know you have,” he said. “You dream about it as a boy. All that emotion will erupt in a South African heartbeat and you will give it your all. I know that is how it will happen for me. It is a unique South African crowd tradition and culture we have that brings the best out in players. There is always 20 percent more you can find in yourself on the special occasions.”
Coetzee, showing his boyish excitement, then adds: “For me this week is about understanding that you are not representing yourself but your country.”
And what is he expecting from England?
“They have not come here to back down,” he smiles. “They are a team with a lot of pride and tradition, and they are starting over and want to make a point. They are not unlike us in that they love to have a physical presence at forward – we saw that against the Barbarians a fortnight ago.
“They are a new, young squad with loads of enthusiasm and they have had good preparation before coming out here. England like to take you on in the forwards and relish the fight for the gain line, and they have a refreshing new backline. We know what to expect but will be concentrating on our own strengths. We have no reason whatsoever to underestimate them.”