Skibbereen RFC’s Gavin Coombes has signed his first professional contract with Munster. KIERAN McCARTHY charts his rise from minis rugby to Munster and finds out what this big news means to his hometown club
DREAMS do come true – they were the words on Skibbereen Rugby Club’s Facebook page last Thursday when they shared the news that Gavin Coombes has earned his first senior contract with Munster.
This is a good news story for everyone, for Gavin, his family and friends, his club Skibbereen, the local coaches who taught him the skills of the game, his former team-mates who soldiered beside him, and Munster rugby.
Gavin has signed his first professional rugby contract, a two-year deal with Munster.
He’s currently in the third and final year with the Greencore Munster Academy and will be promoted to the senior squad at the start of the 2019/20 season.
It’s further evidence, if needed, that this talented number eight is on a journey to the top. He’s only 20 years old but already the Betsboro battering ram has shown enough to suggest that he can follow in the footsteps of another West Cork man, Darren Sweetnam from Dunmanway, and become a regular fixture in the Munster senior set-up.
Gavin’s almost 6’ 6” in height, he weighs in at 110kg, he’s a big man and he puts that physical frame to use on the field.
After an impressive pre-season, he made his PRO14 debut in the opening round win against the Cheetahs at the start of September, and Munster chiefs have seen enough to offer him his first professional contract. There’s a growing belief that big things lie ahead.
Gavin was the first player from Skibbereen RFC to join the Munster Rugby Academy in 2016 and he is now the first-ever player from the club to sign a professional senior contract. He’s smashing barriers as his rise continues.
He started with the Skibbereen minis when he was only six years old, his father Eric (who played with Skibb) took him to training, and Gavin progressed up through the ranks with the club, to youths, U18 and J1, as well as playing with Bandon Grammar School.
His uncle John Coombes coached him for many years while Jerry O’Brien and Aidan Bushe are two more to have helped him on his way, as has his mother Regina (‘I wouldn’t have been anywhere if my mom didn’t drive me all around the country for games and training,’ he said before) and his aunt Mags Coombes (married to John and also the club’s first lady president).
‘It’s fantastic for Gavin and everyone is delighted for him,’ Mags said.
‘He has worked really hard over the years and this is a great reward for him.’
This is also a huge boost for Skibbereen RFC to see one of their own earn a professional contract.
‘This is great because it will change peoples’ notions of the perceived pathway,’ Mags says.
‘The reality is that the pathway is there for anybody whether you come through a club or a school. If you’re good, you’re good enough and you’ll get there. Obviously you need a bit of luck along the way.
‘From our point of view, it’s great to recognise the huge number of people in West Cork who have been involved in rugby for decades. People feel we are the poor relation but that’s changing. There is a realisation that talent can come from anywhere.’
Skibbereen RFC is building a reputation as a nursery ground for rugby talent with Gavin and his younger cousin Liam (son of Mags and John) both making their mark with Munster, while Castlehaven’s David McCarthy was involved in the Munster set-up for a few years.
Gavin is a regular with the Munster As and has impressed in the AIL with Young Munster. He’s a powerful presence who represented Ireland at U19 and U20 level, as well as winning interpro titles with Munster at U18 schools and U19 level.
It was at home in Skibb where this talent was shaped and honed, with his club and Bandon Grammar playing important roles. He was captain of the school team in 2016 when they went on a good run in the Munster Schools’ Senior Cup.
‘Gavin benefitted from that period of time when Bandon Grammar was a B school,’ Mags Coombes explains.
‘They are gone to A now which means anyone playing with Bandon Grammar can not play club rugby. That means that their senior and junior players are tied to the school so they can only play schools’ rugby, they cannot play club.
‘If Gavin was currently a student at Bandon Grammar he wouldn’t be able to play club. In that era when Gavin was there, he played every single club game that was to be played, right up through the ages. He was able to play with the club and the school, so he got a lot of good games in good competitions.’
The knock-on effect of Gavin signing a two-year deal will be felt in his hometown club. It should give it a great lift. Last month he popped into Skibb’s rugby camp where he signed autographs and stood in for photos. He took part in the same camp ten years before, so that will show the next generation that a boy from West Cork can make his way up the rugby ladder.
Darren Sweetnam has. Bantry’s Fineen Wycherley is. And so is Gavin.
He told The Southern Star that day that he wasn’t thinking about earning a contract, that he wanted to play and that the rest should take care of itself. Well, it’s worked out just as he would have hoped.
It will also feel like a weight has lifted from his shoulders. To get to the third year of the Academy is an achievement in itself. Not everyone who enters the Academy gets to progress up along. In the third year, you aim for a contract because if you don’t, it could be the end of the road.
Gavin’s not the finished product by any means. He’ll tell you himself that he wants to take his physicality in attack and around the breakdown in defence up another few levels. He’s backing himself to do just that, and so are those in Skibb who have seen him evolve as a player.
‘The whole club is delighted for him. This will make people feel good about our rugby club in Skibbereen. It shows you can learn how to play rugby here as good as anywhere else. It’s very encouraging,’ Mags Coombes says.
‘It’s good news too for the players who have played with him all the way up, and nearly all our J1 team has played with Gavin at some point or another.’
As Skibbereen RFC says, Gavin’s achievements to date are a huge boost to all small rural clubs.
His star is continuing to rise.