“I enjoyed it,” he said. “I haven’t had this much fun in a long time. It’s always nice to play well and it goes both ways, the better you play, the more you enjoy it.
“I hit the ball nicely and hit a lot of fairways. I also made a lot of greens and made a lot of putts, and that was the key.
“There’s a lot of golf left and some of the first-round leaders only teed off now, so we’ve got today and two more rounds. I felt like I’ve started playing better over the last few weeks.”
Former Ryder Cup star Howell, a four-time European Tour winner but without a victory since 2006, holed a 12 foot putt at the sixth for one of four birdies in his 69.
Willett, who secured his first title at the BMW International Open last year, birdied the long eighth – his 17th - after reaching the green in two, but then bogeyed the next to sign for a 68.
Fichardt was amongst the afternoon starters and set off with five consecutive pars to remain seven under, alongside England’s Gary Lockerbie and Chilean Mark Tullo.
Tullo, back on The European Tour after coming through The Challenge Tour last season, took just 32 shots to the turn and when he added a 12 foot birdie at the 13th he reached ten under, just two behind Coetzee.
American Peter Uihlein and South African Dawie Van Der Walt were also five under for their rounds and sharing third on nine under.
Former US Amateur Champion Uihlein then chipped in at the last for a back nine 31 and round of 66 to join Tullo in second place.