He’s the former Skibbereen RFC clubman who is making a name for himself with Munster and Ireland, and this Friday Gavin Coombes is hoping to spoil England’s party in the U20 Six Nations. He spoke to KIERAN McCARTHY about his journey so far
GAVIN Coombes is a trailblazer for Skibbereen rugby.
The young West Cork man (19), from Betsboro, was the first player from Skibbereen RFC to join the Munster Rugby Academy when he linked up with the province last summer and last Saturday he made his full debut in the U20 Six Nations for Ireland, impressing in the 41-27 loss away to Wales. He was a second-half replacement in the win against France.
On top of that, talented number eight Coombes – son of Eric and Regina – has caught the eye with Munster A in the British & Irish Cup, impressed for his club Young Munster in the AIL and there’s a strong chance that he will also be selected on the Ireland U20 squad for the 2017 World Rugby U20 Championship in Georgia that starts at the end of May. These are exciting times for back rower Coombes, who is also looking forward to the final U20 Six Nations game of the campaign – home in Donnybrook against England on St Patrick’s Day. Bring it on, he says.
KIERAN McCARTHY (KMC): Congrats on your first start in the Six Nations against Wales. The result didn’t go the way you wanted (Wales won 41-27 to end Ireland’s hopes of winning the competition) but what are your thoughts on the match itself?
GAVIN COOMBES (GS): It was a big game – but that’s what I relish. We had won the three previous games (against Scotland, Italy and France) and we knew we needed a win to bring the championship to the last weekend. I was excited before the game, I wasn’t nervous. It’s a massive honour to start for your country.
Personally, I was happy enough with how the game went, there will always be elements of the game that I want to work on, but I was happy with it overall. The standout moment for me was facing the full Welsh crowd when they were singing their national anthem; that was pretty intimidating but that helps me get ready for a game.
KMC: Unfortunately the result didn’t go Ireland’s way and England are already champions before Friday’s game in Donnybrook. (team news: Gavin has been named on the bench for the clash v England)
GC: Ya, you’re right, England have already the championship won, they picked up a bonus point in all their games so while we can’t win the title, we want to finish the campaign on a high note and against a very good team. We’re good enough to spoil their party.
Anyway, it’s England on St Patrick’s Day in Dublin, that’s a massive occasion all on it’s own, there’s a lot to it.
KMC: Looking past the Six Nations and to the U20 Rugby World Championship – Ireland have been drawn against New Zealand, Italy and Scotland in Pool B – what’s the process to get included in that squad?
GC: It will be more or less the same squad as now, they will pick it off the Six Nations and trial games so hopefully I will have done enough to get in there. Ireland got to the final in this competition last year so we want to push on and replicate that, and it’s also another chance to gain more experience, play against quality players and hopefully get the chance to play against the All Blacks.
KMC: You come across as a very relaxed young man, not much fazes you – does that approach help during a game?
GS: I try not to dwell on stuff for too long. If you think about stuff too much, you can’t learn and improve. Once I make a mistake, I forget about it and move on, and not let it impact me or hold me back. I have always tried to enjoy rugby, that’s the main reason I play it, so I don’t want to get caught up too much.
KMC: Let’s rewind back to the start for you, when you took your first steps in rugby. You come from a strong rugby family who have been involved in Skibbereen RFC for years, so I presume that’s where your interest stemmed from?
GC: My father (Eric) was always very involved with the club, he brought me down as a six, seven-year-old, and it started from there. Rugby is big at home. He played with Skibb and all his brothers played with Skibb and most of them had a part to play coaching-wise when they finished up so we’ve always been heavily involved with the club.
I was going to junior games even before I started playing. My uncle (John Coombes) would have coached me all the way up, from U10s to about U18 with Skibb; he has also been a massive influence on my career.
Margaret Coombes (John’s wife and Skibbereen RFC’s first lady president) and my mom (Regina) also had a massive say on my rugby as well. I wouldn’t have been anywhere if my mom didn’t drive me all around the country for training and games so she’s been a big part of this. She really pushed me and encouraged me.
KMC: Did you take to rugby right from the off?
GC: No, not really, nerves played a big part in my younger days, but I enjoyed it a lot.
I played a bit of basketball and GAA, my parents never wanted me to just play the one sport growing up – but when the rugby started to get serious I had to give up the other two. Rugby was always my first choice. The passion that my mom and dad have was passed on to me.
I kept playing away, I went to Bandon Grammar School in first year but it wasn’t until third year that I started making the representative squads and I pushed on then the whole way through with Munster.
We had a good run in the Munster Schools’ Senior Cup with Bandon Grammar (in 2016 and Gavin was captain) and all that helped. I was involved with Munster by then.
KMC: Last summer you got the call that you were selected as a new recruit for the Greencore Munster Rugby Academy for the 2016/17 season, the first player from Skibbereen RFC to achieve this feat, talk to me a little bit about the academy.
GC: It was a big surprise, to be honest. I was expecting to be called into the sub academy so to get the call last May to tell me I would be in the academy was a massive shock – but it’s a great honour.
I am contracted to Munster, I train with the senior squad and I’m in the set-up seven days a week. It’s been a massive boost to me and to my game, being around the calibre of players and coaches in the senior squad.
KMC: Going by what we talked about earlier, I’m guessing you’re not fazed by training with the international stars and seasoned pros at Munster?
GC: I don’t think about it like that. I stick to my own game, work on my own skills and concentrate on getting better. I want to be in their position in seven or eight years but I know I need to work hard to get there. You have to be focussed.
KMC: Fineen Wycherley from Bantry is also in the Munster academy with you and in the Ireland U20 Six Nations squad, and your cousin Liam Coombes (son of John and Mags) is on the Ireland panel and in the Munster sub academy, and David McCarthy (former Skibbereen RFC) is also in the Munster sub academy – that shows there’s a strong pool of talent in West Cork.
GC: Rugby has grown massively over the last ten years. You can see that in the competitiveness between the local clubs, Skibb, Bantry and Clon. There are big playing numbers in most clubs in West Cork too and that’s great to see. There are a few of us pushing on now and that will give hope to the younger fellas coming up. Nationally there is a bigger interest in rugby and that has trickled down, and when you think too that the standard of coaching has improved and that there is a great pool of talent in West Cork, it all helps.
The Skibb U16s and U18s had great runs in the Pan Munster Cup, Bandon Grammar School got through to the semi-finals of the Munster Schools’ Senior Cup for the first time this year so that shows rugby in West Cork is improving all the time. There’s a lot of talent in West Cork.
KMC: You’re sharing a house with Liam and David in Limerick, does that help?
GS: It was easier for all of us to live together because we all know each other from before, we’re all on the same schedule and we all want the same thing: to be successful in rugby.
It’s nice to share this with Liam too, we’ve grown up together playing rugby, we have been very close growing up so it’s special to be playing with Munster and in with Ireland together.
KMC: Paul O’Connell is one of your heroes and he’s now a coach in Munster too, what’s that like?
GC: He’s very approachable and he’s very good with us. He’d pull you aside and show you some video clips from the weekend, tell you what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing. He’s a great coach. And when he talks to you, you listen. I know I need to keep improving, putting in good performances and keep progressing if I want to make it, I’ve a long way to go but I’m determined to work hard and see where that takes me.