Two cousins from Skibbereen have worked their way from West Cork to the Munster Rugby senior squad. KIERAN McCARTHY caught up with Liam and Gavin Coombes to chat about the journey they’ve taken together and the close bond that they share
LIAM Coombes didn’t waste any time in landing the first blow.
‘Because of the size of Gavin a lot of people think he’s older than me – but I was born in May 1997 and he was born that December. I’ll always have that over him!’ Liam laughs.
Funnily enough, there is the perception that Gavin is older. Maybe it’s because of his size, that sturdy six foot six frame that’s carried him from Betsboro in Skibbereen all the way to the Munster Rugby senior squad, but Liam’s quick to set the record straight. He is 224 days older than his first cousin, but then Gavin is three inches taller. Height matters too, Gavin quips. We’ll call this one a draw.
The banter flowed throughout this chat with the Skibb first cousins who have risen through the ranks together and while their paths to the top went in different directions at various stages, they’ll both take their place in the Munster senior dressing-room next season.
It will be Gavin’s second year in the senior ranks while Liam is starting his first year as a senior after signing a one-year contract in January. Both came through the Munster Academy and both came through Skibbereen RFC, too.
‘Last year I would have have been in a different dressing-room from Liam for the first time ever so it’s great that he’ll be up there this year,’ Gavin says.
‘We have always been very close so I am incredibly proud of him signing a senior contract – plus I’ll be above him again so I am looking forward to that.’
The Coombes cousins have blazed a trail. Gavin (22) was the first player from Skibbereen RFC to enter the Greencore Munster Rugby Academy and he was also the club’s first player to earn a senior contract with Munster. Two big firsts that have joined the dots from Skibb to Thomond Park and created a path. Liam (23) followed closely behind. They are two symbols of West Cork’s rising reputation as a rugby hotbed and a reason too that there is now more rugby attention than ever on this region.
They’ve come a long way from those early years.
We don’t have to look too far to see where Liam and Gavin’s passion for rugby comes from. Liam’s dad, John, and Gavin’s dad, Eric, are brothers. Both are rugby mad. Both also played for Skibbereen RFC juniors.
‘They played with the Munster juniors too,’ Gavin points out, ‘and we would have seen their jerseys hanging up in the rugby club and we always wanted to go one better.’
Their moms’ fingerprints are all over this story too. Gavin’s mom, Regina, and Liam’s mom, Mags (Skibbereen RFC’s first lady president), are central characters. Again, rugby mad. Again, hugely supportive.
‘Our parents have backed us all the way,’ Gavin says.
‘Without them we wouldn’t be where we are, the commitment to drive us from Skibbereen to Cork twice a week is massive and we’re very grateful.’
As kids, Liam and Gavin were close. They went to different national schools – Liam attended Lisheen NS while Gavin went to Abbeystrewry NS – but they were together at weekends, a familiar sight at Skibb junior matches. They didn’t watch the action though, they were engaged in their own games on the sideline.
‘Even from a young age when we were playing those matches beside J1 games, it was all about playing for Munster. The dream wasn’t to be professional rugby players, it was more to play for Munster, that was the goal,’ Liam says.
It was on to minis rugby at Skibbereen RFC and they progressed up through the age grades together in the same teams. There was lots of success too and they learned how to win very early – they won the South Munster U13 League Cup (beating Sunday’s Well in the final), the U15 South Munster League and Cup and the U18 league. For both, their U15 season jumps out.
‘That was the standout year – we did a league and cup double. A lot of lads we played with were very talented rugby players, and playing with local lads and winning was very enjoyable,’ Gavin explains.
Aidan Bushe, Jerry O’Brien and Liam’s dad, John, were the coaches that guided that squad the whole way up. This is where Liam and Gavin learned their core skills.
‘Everyone in West Cork is usually all about football, and I played a lot of football too with Ilen Rovers, but we were lucky that we had good rugby coaches and a good team and that kept us interested in rugby,’ Liam explains.
By now, they were in different secondary schools – Liam studied at St Fachtna’s de la Salle in Skibb before moving to Christian Brothers College in Cork in fifth year (he won the Munster Senior Schools Cup there in 2016), while Gavin attended Bandon Grammar School (and captained his school’s senior team).
During their secondary school days, both got noticed and both were involved in the Munster U17 combined squad (made up of club players and school players) in 2015, along with two more Skibbereen RFC team-mates, David McCarthy from Union Hall and Finbarr Maguire.
‘That was the first time we put on the Munster jersey and we had a couple of games against Connacht at U17,’ Liam recalls, before their paths diverged.
‘At U18 level I went with the schools and Liam was with the clubs – and there was a rivalry between the schools and the clubs,’ Gavin explains.
‘We’d travel up and down to training together from Skibbereen, along with Dave McCarthy who was on the clubs’ team – and the schools used to get the better of the clubs so I had that over Liam!’
Liam and Gavin were back together at U19 level, and their journey continued up through the ranks with Munster and Ireland – and they continued to win together, like when the Munster U19s enjoyed a clean sweep to win the 2015-16 Interpros.
While Gavin was more established with the Ireland U20s in 2017 and played in that year’s U20 Six Nations, the Coombes cousins also lined out for Ireland together at the 2017 U20 World Championships. Both started in the loss to the All-Blacks after Liam was called into the squad as an injury replacement; his U20 debut was that game against New Zealand.
Even their Munster senior debuts were against the same opposition, but on different days. Gavin made his debut against South African outfit Cheetahs in a PRO14 match at Thomond Park in September 2018, and Liam’s try-scoring debut against the Cheetahs followed that November away in Bloemfontein. Gavin played that day too, coming on as a sub.
In December 2019, Liam and Gavin started their first senior Munster match together, a PRO14 victory away to Connacht.
Again, they were together. No surprise to learn either that they share the same house in Castletroy, Limerick and have done for the past four years.
Cousins, friends, team-mates and house-mates, they see a lot of each other, so how do they get on?
Gavin is the better chef, Liam concedes. He’s more experimental when it comes to food. But Liam dominates when they play NBA 2K on the PlayStation.
‘I tend to win that all the time so he doesn’t really like playing it anymore,’ Liam laughs.
Gavin deserves the right of reply here: ‘Okay, I can’t beat him on the PlayStation, and he has this smug looks when he beats me and I can’t put up with it!’
Naturally, these are two competitive men. They wouldn’t be signed up with Munster if they weren’t.
‘We tend to drive each other on. In summer and the off-season we train together in Skibb, we drive each other on in the gym and in fitness. If you see the other fella doing something, you don’t want to be left behind,’ Liam explains.
It’s a good thing then that they aren’t in direct competition for places. Liam is primarily on the wing while Gavin’s in the back row.
‘It’s a blessing alright that we aren’t in the same position so he can do his own thing and I can do my own thing. What I do doesn’t really affect what he does, and vice versa,’ Gavin says.
‘To be honest, we’d be as close to brothers as can be and we don’t really argue.’
While both have two sisters, Gavin has one older brother, and Liam has no brothers, so there’s a strong connection between the two, having grown up as close friends as well as cousins. Behind the banter, there’s a bond.
‘You have the craic in teams but it’s good too to have someone you can talk seriously with when you have a decision to make or if you have something on your mind. It makes it easier when I see someone beside me in the Munster dressing-room that I have played with all my life,’ Liam adds.
Once they land home after Munster training, they try to keep the conversation away from rugby. This is where we meet Walter, the Boston Terrier. This was Gavin’s idea. Liam wasn’t 100 percent convinced at the start, but quickly changed his mind.
‘He is part of the furniture at this stage, he’s a funny old character,’ Gavin says, as evenings are spent taking Walter for a walk. If Gavin and Walter are on their own, Gavin will listen to podcast, usually true crime, and switch off from rugby. That’s important, they both insist.
Both also know the journey the other has taken to work their way from Skibbereen to the Munster senior squad – and they both know how much the other wants it. Mags Coombes, Liam’s mom, has a theory on this. It’s why’s a rural town like Skibbereen is producing international-class athletes in various sports, like rugby and rowing.
‘I think people down here have an advantage because they play their sport because they really want to do it, they’ve to work exceptionally hard to make it and that stands to them,’ Mags said.
‘The effort they put in is huge, they know they have to work hard to succeed and that’s important. They’ve a desire to play, a real will to play and that’s important.’
Liam and Gavin wouldn’t have spent years travelling the road from Skibb to Cork for Munster training if they didn’t desperately want to succeed. Then when you get your chance, you’re determined to grab it and make it count. Coming from a rural area like West Cork, that desire must be inbuilt because you need to work that bit harder, and travel a lot further, to get what you want. Dedication and commitment are key. Liam and Gavin have both in abundance, on top of their own strengths as players.
‘Gavin is an unbelievable competitor, and an unbelievable carrier of the ball, that’s probably his biggest strength. What he has that a lot of forwards don’t is his ability to pass the ball. In today’s game, that’s important, and that comes from the way he played in Skibb, it was off-the-cuff and free-flowing so you had to learn,’ Liam explains.
Gavin returns the compliment.
‘Liam has a phenomenal rugby brain. With the amount of rugby he has watched he just knows what to do and when to do it. He s very big for his position, he is quick and he is good in air – he has a lot of top-class qualities to go well as a winger,’ Gavin says.
They both know too that they need to kick on with Munster next season.
Look at the photos of Liam and Gavin on this page. Notice anything? Liam always stands on the right, Gavin is always on the left. It happened organically at first and after noticing it, now they know where to stand. Side by side, like the journey they’ve been on – but now they need to work harder than ever.
‘The plan is to kick on and hopefully we can do it together because it’s nice to do it with the people you’ve grown up with,’ Gavin says, before he adds, ‘You are never safe regardless of where you lie in the squad because there is always someone who wants your position. You can never be comfortable and you can never rest on your laurels.’
Liam knows this too as he steps up to the senior squad for the new season. He has been in and around the set-up for the last season or so, but now he is a Munster senior and that brings greater responsibility. Liam’s itching to get going. So too is Gavin. They’ve been at home in Skibbereen for the past few months, and they’re eager to get going again.
Liam’s lockdown experience has included helping out on the family farm in Lisheen, and an altercation with one particular calf that proved as challenging as any training session he’s had in recent years. The calf was stubborn, but so is Liam. Locked in their own scrum, eventually the calf took a backward step.
‘I couldn’t imagine being stuck in an apartment in a city over the past few months during the lockdown, I had some freedom in the country and that really helped, and I was able to help out with the farming. But I am ready to go back now and crack on,’ Liam says.
‘There is huge competition in the Munster squad, especially in my position. I enjoy that competition and hopefully I will learn and drive it on.’
Gavin’s ambitious too. He wants to build on last season, be involved in the first team more regularly and to feature in the big games.
‘We’ve got there now and it’s time to kick on,’ he states.
Liam and Gavin, and Walter, will hit the road for Limerick this weekend, chomping at the bit to hit the ground running when Munster training returns. It’s back to work. But they know nothing else. They’ve worked hard to reach this level and they will work harder to stay there. Ideally, side by side, like they’ve always been.