JOHANNESBURG – It wasn’t that long ago that Robbie Coetzee and Ramone Samuels were teammates at the Lions and fighting for a spot in the matchday squad. On Saturday at Newlands they’ll likely come up against each other in the front row and scrum battle.
The emergence on the scene three years ago of Malcolm Marx not only forced Samuels to look elsewhere for playing time, but also led to another hooker at the Lions, Akker van der Merwe, last year opting to also seek greener pastures, in his case at the Sharks.
Coetzee, though, stayed in Johannesburg and has been Marx’s full-time back-up for the last two years.
But a long-term injury suffered by the Springboks' first-choice hooker a month ago has opened the door for Coetzee to again show what he is made of, in the Lions’ starting team.
It’s a position he fulfilled some years ago, and almost made it into the Bok team on one occasion, but right now he knows he’s just filling in until Marx returns at the end of next month.
“I know I’ve got a job to do here at the Lions, whether it’s being part of the starting team, or playing off the bench ... it doesn’t matter,” said Coetzee yesterday when probed about what life is like playing behind the Bok number one.
“My focus is always only on my own game and what I need to do to help the team win matches, not on who’s in front of me in a queue or anything like that.
"At the end of the day I just want to play rugby, be excited for the next game.”
After a bit of a shaky start after replacing Marx when the Lions were on tour in Australasia, Coetzee has found his form and produced some excellent rugby since. He scored a try last weekend from a driving maul, with two more coming from teammates from similar lineout drives.
This weekend at Newlands Coetzee will be up against someone he knows well in Samuels, the brother of flyhalf Damian Willemse. The 23-year-old earned only three Super Rugby caps with the Lions in 2016; opportunities to play being rare.
“I never focus on my opponent; it’s more about what I need to do, and get right, to benefit my team,” said Coetzee. “It’s not a big deal coming up against Ramone, I’m actually looking forward to it ... it’s always nice playing against guys you know.
“I’m also very happy for him, the fact he’s now starting in the Cape, after not getting much chance up here.”
The Lions will be desperate to win in Cape Town after getting back to winning ways with victory against the Brumbies last weekend.
Before that they’d lost three in a row in Australasia and were in danger of losing their grip on the SA Conference. Another win this weekend would keep them in charge during the international break.
Lions boss Swys de Bruin will name his lineup today for Saturday’s match, but don’t expect regular skipper and No 8 Warren Whiteley to be cleared to play.
The knee injury that prevented him from touring with his teammates last month is still causing him problems and he’s only now expected to return to action after the June break. It means Whiteley also won’t play for the Boks against England.