TOM SAVAGE charts Gavin Coombes’ emergence and tells us the Skibbereen man is here to stay
THERE’S something in the water down in Skibbereen. Usually rowers, to be fair, but there’s something else too.
I’m from the middle of West Cork so, growing up, there was always a bit of a myth that the farther west you went into West Cork, the bigger the guys were. I ran into enough of them playing GAA underage. Literally. I rarely came out on the right side of those collisions, to be fair. I’ve come to learn that when it comes to rugby, maybe there was something to that myth. How else do you explain the rise of Gavin Coombes? Maybe throw in his cousin Liam, too, while you’re at it.
They are growing them big out in Skibbereen, that’s for sure. It won’t be long until the wider rugby world gets the same kind of feeling I had on those rocky pitches up the side of a hill – I’m not winning this collision. At least when it comes to dealing with Skibbereen’s Gavin Coombes.
I first saw Gavin Coombes playing for Bandon Grammar in the Munster Senior Cup.
‘That’s a big lad,’ I thought to myself.
You’d hear bits and pieces about him on the usual grapevines that spot players with the potential to go beyond the local level, beyond the AIL to the heady heights of that red shirt and maybe beyond that.
He looked like he had something about him for sure – size, power, naturally – but more than that too. A bit of subtlety. There are some guys who are big hitters in school but it doesn’t translate up through the levels so I made a mental note to keep an eye on this guy.
As the years went by, I kept seeing that name pop up again and again. He played for the Irish U20s during a tough period in the Six Nations and U20 World Championships and eventually ended up in the Munster Academy.
The next time I saw Gavin Coombes play live was the B&I Cup final between Munster A and Jersey Reds in Musgrave Park when he was 19 years of age. That was the day I walked home thinking that I’d just seen a future Irish international. The English Championship can be accused of a lot of things over ‘quality’ and what have you, but one thing it can not be accused of is carrying a whole pile of soft, unwilling to put a shot in on a fella forwards. Just the kind of opponent to let a little extra on a teenager still playing on an academy deal.
In that final, Coombes vaporised the kind of gnarly, tough as hobnails professionals that populate the English Championship in contact with the kind of regularity that you couldn’t help but notice. If you were at that game – and it’s still on Youtube if you’re interested – you’d be hard-pressed to come away without the impression that you were watching a serious guy with a serious future.
Fast forward two years and Coombes is beginning to show what he can do to the wider world of rugby. Scoring nine tries in just 12 Munster starts this season while winning the type of breakdown turnovers, lineouts and offensive/defensive collisions that you normally associate with the likes of a big-money signing from abroad will do that. If you go back and look at the roots of Munster’s Champions Cup comeback against Clermont in the Stade Marcel Michelin late last year, you’ll see Coombes vaporising guys in contact once again – off a lineout this time, winning the kind of big gain line that leads to big tries. That’s where Coombes is operating these days – from Skibbereen to Bandon, to Cork, to Limerick, to the biggest cauldrons in Europe.
It’s even got to the point where people were rightly confused as to why Coombes wasn’t selected to play for Ireland in this year’s Six Nations, at least as of the time of writing. I think it’s as straightforward as this – if Coombes continues on the trend he’s going at this season, opportunities in the green shirt of Ireland will come along in due course. Sometimes getting into that Ireland camp and adapting to the pace and mental load of test rugby can take a while to bed in. Guys like Ryan Baird were in the same boat in 2020 but didn’t make the breakthrough until this year. Coombes will follow the same pattern, I think. He’s just too good not to.
In the modern game, the highest potential players in the back five positions of the pack are expected to defy the usual cliches that come with the numbers 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. To stand out these days, you’ve got to blend the roles traditionally expected in multiple different positions. It’s not enough to just be a good carrier – what else can you bring? If that was all Coombes did, he wouldn’t stand out as much.
Forget about numbers – what can you bring to the table? Right now Coombes is fitting into the roleset of a power forward. He can jump in the lineout on both sides of the throw, he can maul and, if you’re stuck, he can scrummage in the second row. He can poach at the breakdown and he can throw you back in defensive contact.
Not only that, Coombes can add real power to the back of the scrum and he has the explosive acceleration and footwork to break off the base and hurt teams on the gain line over and over again. He can offload, he can sling a pass with the accuracy and sting off both sides that belie his size and power. He can run you over straight up as if you owe him €500. And I think he’s not even close to the player he’ll be in two or three years’ time with a good run of luck with injury.
There is nowhere that Gavin Coombes cannot go in this game with the mental and physical application he has shown over the last two seasons. They make them big in Skibbereen, and Coombes might be the biggest yet.
- Tom Savage is editor of the Three Red Kings website.