Port Elizabeth 23.06.12 Marcell Coetzee in the game between SA and England at the Nelson Mandela Stadium Port Elizabeth. Picture : neil baynes

When Marcell Coetzee was four-years-old and watching his older brother playing rugby, he quickly offered to take the place of an injured player so he could make a few tackles.

And not much has changed for the big Sharks flanker, who has racked up an impressive 232 tackles this season, putting him at the top of this stats list, while also holding more than his own at third on the list for making the most runs (158).

Coetzee, who has been outstanding in this year’s Super Rugby, and will no doubt make some big hits in today’s game against the Reds in Brisbane, grew up making many a tackle on his older brother, Armand, in the garden, often in the mud and rain at the family’s South Coast farm.

His mother, Delia, said her son had been passionate about rugby since he was a toddler.

“He couldn’t wait to get into Grade 3 so he could play rugby at school.

“When he was four, we were watching Armand play a match and someone was injured – the next minute Marcell jumped up, saying: ‘I’ll play, I’ll play.’

“Living on the farm, all the other farm kids would come over and they would play rugby. Marcell always loved tackling,” she said, adding that Sunlight soap played a large part in her life with all the mud-soaked clothes.

And, according to Delia, when Coetzee was not outside playing rugby, he could happily play on his own for hours.

“When he was growing up, he was quite introverted. But he also has a huge sense of humour and is such an affectionate person.

“He is also a committed Christian and is very principled. If he makes a stand, no one will make him change,” she said.

When he was in primary school, his principal remarked to his parents that if Coetzee continued to play as he was, their son could one day be a Springbok. His role model was Pierre Spies, whom he now plays alongside.

Fast forward a couple of years and Coetzee entered Grade 8 at Port Natal School behind his brother, who was already playing for the school, and coach Jan van Straaten immediately realised he had another Coetzee star in the making.

Now director of sport for the school, Van Straaten described Marcell Coetzee, who became the school’s first team captain, as “very charismatic and a natural leader”.

“In Grade 11, he was made a prefect for the boarding establishment which was very unusual as the boarding prefects are normally only chosen from the matric year. He just stood out and, as captain of the first XV in matric, he was very good at leading the whole team,” said Van Straaten.

Under Coetzee’s captaincy, the Port Natal rugby team enjoyed a sensational season, winning 23 consecutive matches.

“He also did well academically. It was a pleasure working with him,” he said.

Coetzee did not make Craven Week or Academy Week, and never played for KZN, but his coaches urged him to not let selectors decide his fate.

Deciding not to let his dream slip through his fingers, Marcell trained for six months under ex-Blue Bulls player Jannie Brooks in his gym garage in Pretoria and then entered the Sharks Academy.

It was during the Currie Cup last year that people sat up and took notice of this thundering player; and this year he joined Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok team for the Test series against the English.

“Singing the anthem and playing my first cap as a Springbok was the proudest moment in my life,” he said from Brisbane this week.

And Delia was right behind him: “When he came out in that Springbok jersey, we were all in tears, it was just so huge.”

And Marcell is very much a Durban ‘boykie’, saying his favourite places in the city are the beach and uShaka. He enjoys relaxing at the farm or going to Pretoria to visit his girlfriend, Chanelle – sorry, girls, he’s taken.

But it’s not only his mom who’s his biggest fan, as rugby in the Coetzee household is definitely a family affair. Both his grandfather, Dirk, and father, Dries, are former rugby players. His younger sister, Andrea, excelled at hockey and Delia loved netball.

As a family friend said, “when the Coetzees are not watching a live rugby game, they are watching a previous game and going through it. The television only ever has rugby on in that house”.

Although Armand and Andrea are away from home, the family will travel to wherever Marcell may be playing.

“Then we go home, have a braai and watch the match all over again,” Delia laughed.

And this week’s match in Australia is the first time the family won’t be cheering from the sidelines. But they will be there in spirit and Delia will make her son’s favourite steak and chips when he gets home.

No doubt it will be a big one.