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'They back us to use our skills, I think that's very apparent'

Gavin Coombes is an effective offloader of the ball, as we saw against Ulster last weekend.

Updated Jan 13th 2022, 9:00 AM

IN A GAME that was very often about grit in the Limerick rain, Gavin Coombes’ flash of skill stood out as Munster overhauled Ulster last weekend.

Jack O’Donoghue offloaded, Mike Haley dummied and darted, then Fineen Wycherley link-passed out the back as Munster shifted the ball into midfield to find Coombes carrying directly.

Two Ulstermen engaged into the tackle on Munster’s main ball-carrier but Coombes has the skill level to flick the offload away one-handed to Josh Wycherley, allowing Munster to maintain the momentum that led all the way to Alex Kendellan’s winning try.

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It was a superb offload from Coombes, although he pushes the credit elsewhere.

“I think just communication from Josh, I knew he was going to get to my outside and once I made contact my arms were free and I was able to get the ball to him,” says Coombes of that eye-catching moment.

“It’s the players around you who have to make the calls as well, it’s not just on the man with the ball. I think as a team we have really developed that.”

Munster are not known as frequent offloaders – only five teams in the United Rugby Championship have made fewer offloads on average per game this season – but Coombes says the province’s players are given license to use their skills in this area by coaches Johann van Graan and Stephen Larkham.

“They back us to use our skills, I think that’s very apparent,” says the number eight. “If you go back to the Toulouse game [in the Champions Cup] last year, some of those Rainbow Cup games, we played some great rugby. Even at the start of this year.

“They want us to express ourselves and take the right options when they’re on. I think there’s a lot of lads who have that skillset to do what they want.”

Coombes is certainly chief among them. As well as being a relentlessly powerful ball-carrier [he made 27 carries against Ulster], Coombes has effective handling skills that allow him to tip on passes and offload the ball.

Interestingly, he says his skill level in this area started to develop when playing club rugby with Skibbereen RFC in West Cork before he went on to star in Bandon Grammar School.

gavin-coombes Coombes and Munster face Castres tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It just would have been part of my game growing up and I guess playing club rugby, it’s a bit more open than in Schools Cup and stuff like that, there would have been a lot of space and a lot of opportunities to do it.

“It was always something that when it came off I wanted to do more and more so it has always been part of my game, to be honest.”

It’s important to note that Coombes isn’t just flinging offloads right, left, and centre these days. He generally times his use of the skill intelligently, popping the ball out of contact after winning the initial collision or when there is clear and communicative support from a team-mate.

Last season in the Pro14, he averaged 0.5 offloads per game, while that figure stands at one offload per URC game so far this season.

His former Munster team-mate, Billy Holland, has previously told a story of how Anthony Foley made Coombes run laps of the pitch during Munster training when he first broke through after becoming exasperated at his over-use of the offload.

“I remember it,” says Coombes. “I think that’s a bit of jealousy on Billy’s part, he couldn’t throw one to save his life!

“But no, I remember it well. I think I was a bit too eager when I first came up, making wrong decisions, throwing it every time.

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“That’s what the coaches are there for, to tell you when you should and you shouldn’t, and that’s a part of my game that has developed over my academy years and the last couple of seasons.”

craig-gilroy-nathan-doak-and-rob-herring-compete-for-possession-with-gavin-coombes Coombes gets the ball away against Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s just one part of the process of Coombes developing to the point where he made his Ireland debut last summer.

The 24-year-old was part of Ireland’s squad last November too but illness meant he missed out on the chance of involvement against Japan, New Zealand, and Argentina.

That frustration was followed by being part of Munster’s URC tour to South Africa, where Coombes tested positive and had to remain in quarantine in a hotel in Cape Town for 10 days before coming back to Ireland to self-isolate for another 10 days.

“To miss out on those first European games and even to have the games cancelled in South Africa was disappointing after not featuring in November,” says Coombes.

“So it was disappointing but I just see it as what’s next. I just want to get on the pitch now and put my hand up to hopefully be in selection for the Six Nations and if not, we have a block of games now during the Six Nations that weren’t going to be there so that’s going to be next action if it does come.”

The Coombes revival continues tomorrow night away to Castres in the Champions Cup.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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