Thursday 26 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
James Crombie/INPHO Coombes (l) is ready to replace Stander (r).
# New Era
'They are big boots to fill but I can’t see why Gavin can’t step into CJ's role'
Stander is leaving Munster at the end of this season – with Coombes set to fill the No8 shirt.

JOHANN VAN GRAAN and Fineen Wycherley have both backed Gavin Coombes to fill the void left by CJ Stander at Thomond Park next season.

Ireland international Stander is set to retire at the end of this Rainbow Cup campaign leaving a sizeable enough hole to plug in the Munster pack. Coombes, however, is the obvious replacement, having deputised successfully in the position on different occasions this season.

Certainly he has his supporters, the 23-year-old the recipient of glowing references from both his head coach, van Graan, and fellow pack member, Wycherley.

Here’s van Graan, firstly, on the legacy Stander has left the club: “Look, CJ has been incredible for Munster rugby. From playing over 150 games here, over 50 for Ireland, number one is the rugby player, one who turned up every single week.

“He is one of the few ball carriers in world rugby who is prepared to carry the ball that others don’t (want to) – whether that is in a close channel or in a wide channel.

“He has developed his poaching game, his all-round game, his work rate, he is one of those players who always plays 80 minutes.

“The second thing that will be missed is the person. I don’t think you get more Munster than CJ. He poured his heart and soul into Munster Rugby and the memories of what he gave – all that blood, sweat and tears – will not be forgotten at Thomond Park.

“He is part of our history now forever and you will only see – when he is not here – how sorely he will be missed. And he will be missed big time.”

cj-stander-leaves-the-pitch-for-the-final-time-after-his-last-home-game-for-the-province Morgan Treacy / INPHO Stander leaves the pitch for a final time. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

So can Coombes fill those shoes? “Gavin Coombes was superb all season,” said van Graan. “No matter where we have played him, he has excelled. You saw on Friday how impressive he was when he came on as a replacement lock.

“He has also played a lot of blindside this season; and I am sure he will put in a big shift at No8 for Munster in the future years. As well as that, it won’t be long before he takes the next step in his career (with Ireland). He has had a magnificent season.”

This, meanwhile, was Wycherley’s take on the Coombes/Stander succession plan: “Gavin has definitely delivered some serious, serious performances this season,” said Wycherley, “and yes, they are big boots to fill but the way he is playing at the moment, I can’t see why he can’t step into that No8 role.

“I think he has taken a lot from CJ, and CJ has passed on a lot of knowledge to him.

“He just has to drive it on. Character wise, they are similar. With CJ, his energy, his character around the building has been massive. His enthusiasm to everything he does, gym, talking in meetings, the way he trains week in and week out, the way he recovers, has made him an unbelievable professional.

“And you know, Gavin is like that. He has put himself in the right position to get us tries this year and if you look back to a lot of big games, he has got us out of tough situations. He has been the deciding factor in those circumstances.”

Coombes aside, a number of homegrown Munster academy players are beginning to emerge. Wycherley has been around a while yet remains just 23. Younger brother Josh has shown promise as have half-backs, Craig Casey and Ben Healy.

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Then on Friday, Jack O’Sullivan (22), Jack Crowley (21) and Kenyan Knox (22) got their chance – a real case of opportunity Knox for the young South African prop, who scored the winning try in Munster’s 31-27 win over Cardiff.

“I thought he did really well; he is scrummaging really well and his general D has improved,” said van Graan of Knox. “Ball carrying was one of the things we felt he needed to do more and we had that conversation earlier this season.

“If I take you back to the Treviso game a few months ago, he also scored that try from close range so he has worked really hard on that and he is going to press the lads ahead of him for a spot on the 23.

“So I am really chuffed with his performance.”

Wycherley added: “This is a hugely exciting time to be a Munster fan because if you look at the younger lads in the squad, we have stepped up. To be fair to the older lads, they have passed on a huge bit of knowledge and without them, we would not be the kind of players we are.

“We take a lot of knowledge from them and credit to them for passing on their experiences and how much it means to them to play in a Munster jersey. We owe it ourselves, to them, to the Munster supporters to drive it on.”

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