RYAN VREDE writes Marcell Coetzee is the natural successor to Schalk Burger, with Heinrich Brussow’s limitations as an openside seeing his Test future hanging in the balance.
Coetzee is the real deal. You get a sense about these things when you’ve seen enough impostors to know the difference. I remember being awed watching an 18-year-old Frans Steyn’s performance in torrential rain at Kings Park for the Sharks against Western Province in 2006. Coetzee has had me incredulous at times this season in the same way Steyn did six years ago and indeed as other players of their ilk have. They are a class apart, born not only to play Test rugby, but excel in elevated company.
Schalk Burger will be remembered as one of the great Springboks in history when he retires. There were concerns about the void the 29-year-old will leave when his battle-battered body eventually betrays him. And it will. Burger only has one gear – over-drive – and knowing nothing else but absolute commitment to the cause, he has scant regard for his longevity in the game. The South African rugby fraternity can take heart that in Coetzee there is a successor of immense quality.
Three years ago Brussow announced himself on the Test stage by tormenting the British & Irish Lions, and his value endured to the point where it was largely accepted that his injury-enforced early exit from the World Cup quarter-final was central to the Springboks’ defeat. But that was a time when a greater contest was allowed and under a coaching staff that overlooked Brussow’s relatively diminutive constitution because of the asset he was on the ground.
But Brussow’s future now looks bleak for a number of reasons. Future changes to the breakdown laws will increasingly favour the attacking team, gradually eroding the importance and value of a specialist fetcher (already statistically in 2012 Brussow has stolen nearly as many balls as penalties conceded). Indeed, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer believes the laws that govern that facet of play already demand the selection of an openside flanker adept at contesting the breakdown in a bid to slow or turnover possession, as he is at carrying the ball, while having the height to be a lineout option is a bonus.
Coetzee ticks all those boxes, Brussow two at a push. Undoubtedly the Cheetahs man is a competent carrier, but Coetzee has shown himself to be a greater force, his muscular, 106kg frame better equipping him than Brussow’s stocky 100kg does in this regard. Both possess a high degree of mongrel (a key ingredient that a physical god like Pierre Spies lacks and which accounts primarily for his inability to consistently boss the tackle fight) but Coetzee’s aforementioned physical superiority amplifies his threat.
Coetzee, who started his career as a No 8 and later moved to blindside flank, readily admits he isn’t close to Brussow in terms of his contesting skills. But Meyer, who believes Coetzee will become a ‘superstar’ at openside, doesn’t care. He offers a multi-faceted threat that Brussow doesn’t (by Meyer’s standards), and, given he is close to his physical ceiling, probably never will.
The best Brussow can hope for now is a role as an impact player. Coetzee may have to bide his time when Burger returns from injury, but he is the future.
By Ryan Vrede, in Durban