Remarkable season just the beginning for Skibbereen star
When it comes to breakthrough seasons, few rank as highly as the most recent one put down by Skibbereen’s Gavin Coombes.
Gavin, who hails from Betsboro, was always highly touted but few could have predicted just how big an impact he’d end up having in the red of Munster and, eventually the green of Ireland last season.
In Munster’s opener against Scarlets back in October, Coombes made an impactful appearance from the bench, replacing Jack O’Donoghue after 62 minutes.
By season's end, the big number eight was starting for Ireland against the USA at the Aviva Stadium.
He even managed to bag a try in the 71-10 rout.
‘I think it’s just luck,’ was Gavin’s response when asked about his meteoric rise on this week’s edition of the Star Sport Podcast.
But in truth, luck has nothing to do with it.
Coombes scored a record 15 tries in 17 starts for the province, ensuring his name is now one of the first on Johann van Graan’s team sheet.
‘During lockdown I worked hard on my fitness and my strength. The lads were away for a longer period in November. CJ [Stander] was gone and Pete [O’Mahony] was gone and that gave me a real chance.’
When the chance presented itself, Coombes took it with both hands.
‘I always felt in myself that if I could get a run of games starting that I’d be able to show what I was able to do and thankfully I got that chance.’
Having started only three games in the previous two seasons, this was heady territory for the novice back-rower but rather than become overwhelmed, he thrived, eventually winning Munster Men’s Player of the Year award.
Coombes’ performances at Thomond Park eventually led to calls for his inclusion in the Ireland senior setup.
The numbers didn’t lie and when the time came for Andy Farrell to pick his squad for the summer tests with Japan and the USA it was almost inevitable that Gavin would be selected.
‘He certainly knows where the try-line is,’ Farrell said of Coombes at the time.
The magic debut moment came after 70 minutes of Ireland’s 39-31 victory over the Sunwolves.
‘I was itching to get on,’ Coombes said.
‘It was a blur. Every minute from 60 I was looking at the clock and I was waiting, waiting, waiting. When I got my chance, it was class.’
Despite the limited numbers of fans in attendance there was still a sizable West Cork contingent that had made the journey to the capital.
‘To have family and friends up, because I haven’t had them all year, was pretty cool. It was some experience.
‘My mother was delighted because she missed my European debut but at least she has the Irish one.’
More exposure to international test rugby followed days later.
This time however there was no clock watching, no waiting to get on.
Against the USA, Coombes was in from the start.
‘I knew I had the chance to showcase what I could do.’
Another chance, taken with both hands.
Bantry Bay RFC graduate Fineen Wycherley took his first steps in the international game that same day on what was a special occasion for rugby in the region.
‘Ye it was pretty cool,’ Gavin said of sharing the pitch with his fellow West Cork man.
‘We’ve been battling it out since we were under 15s, Skibb v Bantry, so to do it together is pretty cool and pretty special.’
The rise of West Cork rugby in recent years has been well-documented.
Dunmaway’s Darren Sweetnam was the trailblazer and while Gavin and Fineen’s ascension to the green jersey might have felt like the culmination of a remarkable journey, the ex-O’Donovan Rossa man is keen to make sure that this is only the beginning of his.
‘I think everyone’s aim is to get back into that room, obviously I’d love that. But the focus now is getting back for pre-season and getting to my tip-top shape and ready for this season with Munster.
‘I’d like to think that this is only the start and that next season I’ll be a regular again for Munster and hopefully kick on and get a few more Irish caps if possible.’
With the new season just around the corner, with Bath visiting Limerick on September 4th, a gaping hole in the Munster and Ireland back row needs to be filled.
The iconic figure of CJ Stander has exited stage left, having announced his retirement back in March
Since then the talk has been that in Gavin Coombes, Munster have a ready made replacement.
Stander’s are big boots to fill and at just 23-years-old, how does Gavin deal with that pressure?
‘I just take each week as it comes. I’m under no illusions. There’s always lads coming up behind you so I can’t rest on my laurels just because I’ve had one good season.
‘CJ did it for nine years so I’m going to have to go on and do it for ten years to be remembered like he is or have a career like he did so there’s a lot of motivation to keep going and keep pushing myself.’
Any talk of what CJ Stander’s departure from Thomond Park means for Gavin Coombes’ future amounts to no more than idle speculation at this point but what it has done is present the Skibb man with a chance to stake his claim.
And given his track record when presented with chances during the last 18 months, you can be sure he’ll be more than ready to seize his latest opportunity.