Munster star Gavin Coombes primed to take his chance with Ireland

‘I would have always backed myself, I knew what I could do.’

Coombes at Ireland training this week.
Coombes at Ireland training this week.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

WHEN GAVIN COOMBES’ chance came this season, he was ready to pounce.

Some young players simply aren’t prepared enough to prosper when circumstances give them the opportunity to shine, but Coombes had been patiently waiting for his opening with Munster, working hard away from the limelight.

He had been around the senior squad for a couple of seasons before the current campaign but had just three starts to his name. Fast forward to the present day at the end of the 2020/21 season and Coombes is a key player for Munster and set to become a senior Ireland international in two weekends’ time.

The 23-year-old Skibbereen man has had a sensational season with his native province and there is major excitement about his Test debut. While some people might be surprised at how swift his rise has been, Coombes himself felt he had it in him.

“I would have always backed myself, I knew what I could do,” said Coombes yesterday from Ireland camp. “It was all about getting the opportunity and then showcasing it and, luckily enough, Covid helped a bit with that as CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony were up here with Ireland a lot.

“I got a consistent run of games and then I felt that stood to me and then when I got a chance in big games, I felt like I took them.

“But there have been four or five years in the background where I wasn’t getting the games but I was putting in the work off the pitch and that really stood to me this season.”

Coombes joined the Munster academy straight out of Bandon Grammar School in 2016 and was integrated into senior training at an early stage too.

gavin-coombes-scores-a-try-1162021 Coombes scored 15 tries in 22 games for Munster this season. Source: Luca Sighinolfi/INPHO

He remembers one lesson about the realities of the top level when the late, great Anthony Foley helped him to understand that flinging loose offloads was of benefit to no one.

“I’ve been hearing that from the lads all year – ‘You’re only a flash in the pan!’,” says Coombes.

“That was one of my first sessions. I had come from schools rugby where you can throw the ball wherever you want to. There were a lot of offloads going to ground, so he sent me for two or three laps.

“Then back in, the same thing again, so I had to go for more laps. And I haven’t been able to live it down since.”

Funnily enough, accurate offloads are a strength in Coombes’ refined game these days. 

Such has been his progress that he looks like the ideal replacement for the retiring CJ Stander in Munster’s number eight shirt. Stander’s return home to South Africa also means an opening in Ireland’s back row depth chart.

Coombes will look to prosper in both jerseys but says he has learned lots from Stander in recent years.

“He’s uber-professional, he’s up there with the top professionals I’ve ever seen. He’s a great guy so someone I could easily bounce off. Even when I was 18, I would always have gone to him and he would have given me little details I needed to know.

“I would have watched him all the way through when I was growing up, seen how physical he was and what he brought in the carry, his work-rate around the pitch. I think a good bit of my game is modeled off of that.

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gavin-coombes Coombes is in line to make his Test debut against Japan in two weekends' time. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I’d like to think I also have attributes of my own that I can offer that are slightly different to what he had to offer, but he has been a significant influence on my career.”

This is Coombes’ second time in Ireland camp, having trained with Andy Farrell’s squad for a week during the Six Nations earlier this year.

That was to get a taste of what national team training is like but Coombes is in the squad proper this time around, ready to make an impact on the pitch against Japan and the US in the two upcoming Tests.

“To get up and even get your head around calls and how the system works, that will really stand to me when I’m up here now,” said Coombes.

“I have a slight advantage over the new lads, even though we are going over all those aspects again, but to have it in the back of my head, I can really focus on what I need to be doing now rather than having to worry about what the calls are.

“I want to get my foot in the door and if I get my opportunity, to take it like I did with Munster at the start of the year. Hopefully, I can keep myself up here if I can go out and perform on the pitch.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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