TOM SAVAGE takes a closer look at Skibbereen’s rising rugby star Gavin Coombes and explains what makes the Betsboro man so good
GAVIN Coombes journey from Year 1 in the Munster academy in 2016 to a starring role in 2021 wasn’t the kind of meteoric rise that we’ve been conditioned into expecting when you look at the likes of James Ryan, Ronán Kelleher, Andrew Porter and Caelan Doris up in Leinster but Coombes looks all the better for it.
Sometimes players need that time to develop physically and mentally to be ready for the hurt arena of professional sport. Coombes played in A games, he played AIL for Young Munster, he worked his way up and when the opportunity came his way at the start of this season in the second year of his first professional contract, he grabbed it with both hands and played his way into the Champions Cup squad.
Coombes (23) went from being a big strong ball carrier at school and U20 level to being a player that can impact games at the highest level in the club game as a senior professional. That kind of development is hard to come by and Coombes path to where is now – from Betsboro outside Skibbereen to Thomond Park – was fuelled by his desire to make it happen.
THE POWER GAME - The first thing you notice about Gavin Coombes is probably how big he is. Why wouldn’t you? He’s 6’6” and built like a tank. In the modern game, that counts for a lot but Coombes makes it count. A lot of his tries this past season have come from expressing that power at close range. When Munster get into position from five metres out, Coombes has shown he’s got the brute force to make the opposition pay over and over again. It doesn’t just show from close range either, Coombes has repeatedly shown against first-class opposition that he has the size and power to get over and beyond the gain line during phase play and, in doing so, showed he was the man to replace the ball carrying void left behind by the retiring CJ Stander at a provincial level, and with a fair wind, test level too. Coombes topped the charts for Munster this season in both tries, carries and tackles in what was his breakout season at the club.
SKILLSET - If Coombes was just a brutish ball carrier, he’d be way easier to defend. What has made him stand out in the PRO14 and Europe has been the quality of his handling and the range of his passing game in tandem with that brutish, technically excellent ball carrying. Forget about numbers on the back for a moment, Coombes offers the kind of broad skillset that defies immediate categorisation. He’s a viable lineout target and powerful lifter, he’s a strong offensive and defensive mauler and, when you give him the ball in open play, he’s as capable of running you over as he is firing an accurate offload, short ball or pass into the backfield. He’s a two-way running threat that isn’t easy to read in possession. The only thing he’s shown he can’t do for certain is kicking for goal and, even then, you’d never know with this guy.
TOUGHNESS - None of Coombes’ power and skillset would be worth much if it wasn’t backed up with toughness. You don’t come up playing with Skibbereen RFC trained by the likes of John Coombes, Jerry O’Brien and Aidan Bushe before going to Bandon Grammar and turn out soft, let’s put it that way. You can see by the way Coombes applies himself ruck to ruck and phase for attacking phase that he plays hard. You can see it in him at the breakdown, when he’s absorbing punishment to poach the ball, or when he’s hammering guys back on both sides of the ball from close range or any range. Physical and mental toughness is one of the biggest markers in whether a player makes it as a top international or not. Whenever you step out over the white lines – be it on the training field or match field – you’ve got to have a ruthless, killer mindset. Coombes showed some of that this season. You could see it against Toulouse in the Champions Cup last-16 tie, you could see it against Leinster in the PRO14 final, you could see it earlier in the season away to Glasgow when TJ Ioane, their on-loan enforcer, tried to get stuck in him only for Coombes to laugh him off. It’s early days yet, of course, but he’s showing all the right stuff to be exactly what Munster need in their pack over the next decade.