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THE LAST WORD: What more must Gavin Coombes do?

September 2nd, 2023 6:30 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

THE LAST WORD: What more must Gavin Coombes do? Image
Gavin Coombes has won two international caps for Ireland.

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ALAN Quinlan can sympathise with the position Gavin Coombes is in right now: the Skibb man is close to a breakthrough with Ireland, but just not close enough.

Eleven days before Ireland’s 33-man squad for Rugby World Cup 2023 was announced on Sunday, Coombes already knew he wouldn't take a seat on the first flight to France. 

The six-foot six-inch Betsboro battering ram was one of five players released from head coach Andy Farrell’s training squad on August 16th, but Coombes’ omission was the one that dominated the headlines. That tells its own story.

The 25-year-old was named on last season’s United Rugby Championship Elite team after playing a key role in Munster’s title success, made the long list for the EPCR Player of the Year, was the province’s top try-scorer with 14 in 22 appearances and was immense for Munster, again. The body of evidence supporting his claims for an opportunity with Ireland is growing, if not already more than sufficient.

The belief was that the number eight would show Andy Farrell that he can translate that Munster form and importance to the international set-up – but Coombes never got the chance he deserved.

‘I was a bit disappointed we didn’t get to see Gavin in either the Italy or England games, but it is an unbelievably competitive situation,’ former Ireland and Munster man Alan Quinlan says.

‘In the second half of his season Gavin was outstanding. I think of that turnover in the URC final that led to the match-winning try for John Hodnett; he blocked the Stormers player down and I remember thinking to myself “that’s what Gavin Coombes needs to do consistently, keep moving, keep running”. His strengths are different; he is big and powerful and a great ball-carrier.’ 


But perhaps the writing was on the wall for Coombes’ World Cup chances when the Skibbereen native didn’t feature in the squad for the opening warm-up game against Italy; that was the ideal opportunity to show what he can offer. He was coming off the back of a terrific end to his season so confidence would have been high. Former Ireland international Bernard Jackman was one of those who felt the West Cork man had earned his chance to feature against Italy, highlighting Coombes’ end-of-season form as ‘phenomenal’. 

But Farrell had other ideas; he didn’t select Coombes. 

Now he’s left to play the waiting game. Given the attrition of rugby at the highest level, his phone could still ring and Coombes could be needed in France yet. He will exist in a limbo for these next few weeks, knowing he could be called on if there are injuries, but post World Cup, what more must Coombes do to convince Farrell that he deserves his chance? The Skibb man must be wondering that himself, too. 

He turns 26 years old in December. It’s now over two years since he earned his two Ireland caps in the summer of ’21. He has matured into one of the main men with Munster. Still, it’s not enough to turn Farrell’s head.

Alan Quinlan points to the calibre of players in front of the Munster backrower right now – Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony.

‘One of the major factors here is that the players above Gavin are of such a high quality; van der Flier is World Player of the Year, Doris is probably the best number eight in the world, O’Mahony has had a big two years with Ireland and Munster, and Conan was a British & Irish Lion in 2021. They have been exceptional for the last two years; their level has been so high,’ Quinlan points out.

‘The unfortunate thing for Gavin is that some of these guys have cemented their place in Andy Farrell’s mind. I know you can look at Cian Prendergast, Munster people would feel aggrieved it wasn’t Gavin Coombes getting that chance to play against England but Prendergast must have done something in training that they want to have a look at him in that number eight position.

‘It’s so competitive right now. I lived that life myself with so many good backrowers around the time I played, and it’s not easy to be patient and wait for your chance.’

Quinlan recalls one season where he sat in the stands for five Six Nations games, watching Denis Leamy, Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris and David Wallace ahead of him. He admits he couldn’t really complain. He was striving to get to that level. Eventually, he did. Quinlan won 27 caps and was selected for two World Cups (2003 and ‘07). His advice for Coombes? 

‘He needs to keep banging at that door,’ he insists. 

‘What’s key now is how he trains and how he continues to grow and develop in a new Munster set-up; they played brilliant rugby in the second half of last year and Gavin was central to that. 

‘If I was looking for improvements, it’s more involvements out the field for Gavin. In the last six months he has shown up in massive moments of the game. His big strengths are his ball-carrying, his power and scoring tries, but I have seen so much more from him in the last six months; his work-rate, his skills, his off-load, his ability to win big turnovers at the breakdown.’

Gavin Coombes has won two senior caps with Ireland, back in the summer of 2021.


Coombes’ form in the second half of the season can be traced back to a dip late last year, which saw him released from Andy Farrell’s squad during the Autumn internationals. He was one of many to struggle for Ireland A against an All Blacks XV. But Coombes’ reaction to that setback was telling. 

Munster boss Graham Rowntree said it gave the Skibb man a ‘kick up the backside’, and he bounced back with a string of huge games for Munster, including two superb performances against Northampton in the European Cup. 

‘His footballing intelligence has come on massively in the last year. He’s worked on that aspect of his game. He knows he can’t be a one-trick pony just carrying the ball, which he’s very good at. He carries the ball for us more than anyone,’ Rowntree explained in January. That form saw Coombes brought back into the Irish set-up ahead of the Six Nations. 

As a player he is still improving, and getting Coombes involved in the game more is one of the areas identified, as is the need to show he is more than just a powerful ball-carrier, but that is one of his strengths, too. Five metres out from the try-line, you want Coombes there. 

His response to being cut from the Ireland squad in November saw him take his game to the next level, and he needs the same reaction here now – raise his game to a level where Farrell can’t look past the Skibbereen juggernaut. 

‘The hope is when he gets that chance, he can take it and have a long international career because he has that ability,’ Quinlan adds.

If he stays on the same path Coombes’ time will come. 

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