GILLIAN Coombes has an early memory of her dad, Eric, trying to persuade her to play in one of Skibbereen Rugby Club’s boys’ games.
He was the coach of Skibb’s U14s. She was even younger again, and was able to handle herself, but she drew a line at playing in this game.
‘When I was seven or eight years old dad was coaching the U14 boys and I’d go to training with him, tackling the boys! It would take me ten minutes to get them to the ground and the play had moved on by the time I did! I’m sure there was one time he tried to throw me on the wing in one of their games but I refused,’ laughs Gillian, who grew up in a house where rugby was king.
All four of the Coombes siblings from Betsboro outside Skibbereen – Gillian, Kevin, Gavin and Claire – have played rugby at some stage. Gillian (28) is the oldest, and the latest to hit the headlines – she made her Munster debut last month and helped the province defend their Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial title.
For now she holds the bragging rights, but concedes it will be short lived. Munster giant Gavin (25) is in the Ireland squad for the Six Nations and his star is on the rise.
Even as competitive as the Coombes family are – especially Gavin and herself when it comes to board games at Christmas, Gillian laughs – he enjoyed seeing his oldest sister in the spotlight in recent weeks.
‘It was a bit surreal (to play for Munster) because I didn’t think it was something that was going to happen,’ she explains.
‘When I got the email to invite me to the trials I took it as a bonus. I saw it as an opportunity to learn from very good and experienced coaches. Then I got to the next stage and the next stage … it was a dream come true when I made my debut.’
Gillian’s first appearance for Munster arrived in the second half of their opening weekend 34-0 win against Ulster at Musgrave Park. Her parents were there, Regina and Eric. So too was Gavin, and it was the first time he saw Gillian play. The night before, also at Musgrave Park, Gillian watched Gavin and Munster beat the Lions in the United Rugby Championship. Their first cousin, Liam, scored a sensational solo try that night. No stopping the Coombes clan.
‘That was a special weekend,’ Gillian says.
‘I was there on Friday night when Gav was playing and to be back there on Saturday to play myself, it was surreal, and something I only processed after a bit of time.’
The Munster second row played against Leinster the following weekend and was involved in the squad against Connacht, as her home province completed the clean sweep. Gillian’s story is a remarkable one. Even though surrounded by rugby at home, basketball took centre stage in her early sporting career, playing for UL Huskies in Limerick and Skibbereen Eagles at home. Then she became a unique dual player, juggling basketball and rugby. She was 22 years old when she scratched her rugby itch.
‘I was in my final year of college, was home for Christmas and my sister Claire was playing with Bantry so I said I’d try a few training sessions, to give it a go because I was thinking about playing it after college. I was involved in basketball in UL so I was busy with that. When I turned up to Bantry training, they said they were playing a game the next week and I could play that. That’s how I got involved,’ she says, and it snowballed from there.
After college Gillian, now a sixth-class teacher at Crossmahon National School in Bandon, moved back to Cork and continued her rugby career with Ballincollig, then a junior club. In recent years they have joined the senior women’s All-Ireland League (AIL), exposing Gillian and her team-mates to a higher level. That’s when basketball took a backseat.
‘It was too much to do both, and there is a lot of commitment required to play AIL. Basketball is something I will go back to when I retire from rugby!’ she quipped, but her rugby story is not finished yet.
‘I’d love to have another season with Munster. I’m pushing on a bit now so I don’t know how many more seasons of rugby I will have.
‘Ballincollig are up in the AIL, they are still developing a lot and the underage teams are doing very well, so it’s about minding the jersey until they come up through, and to inspire the next generation again.’
Gillian speaks of being starstruck last month when former Ireland captain Ciara Griffin presented Munster players with their jerseys. On another day Keith Earls, flanked by his three daughters, presented the jerseys and reminded the Munster women that they will inspire the next generation. Gillian is already inspiring young girls as she makes a difference on and off the field.
‘There is a girl who is playing Ballincolllig at the moment,’ she explains, ‘And when I used to teach in Ballinora I taught her. Her mom came up to me after one of our AIL games and said “you’re the reason my five girls are playing rugby now because Áine kept pestering me to play because you are playing”. Now they are all playing.’
Her sixth-class pupils will have watched Ms Coombes playing for Munster, and that will inspire too. She’s showing what is possible. That’s a real lesson in life that will stay with them long beyond their national school days.