Coombes aiming to finish a frustrating season on a high

Versatile Munster man looking forward to the challenge of competing for Ireland in rugby-obsessed New Zealand

Part of the appeal for Andy Farrell of this Irish tour to New Zealand is that it is exposing more than half the 40-man squad to their first Irish senior tour abroad. This would not, he said, be akin to walking around Ballsbridge and hearing nothing but compliments and good will.

As Gavin Coombes has discovered, it’s not like West Cork either.

“Even walking around Auckland, you turn a corner and they’re either saying ‘good luck’ or they’re saying we’re going to get beaten. Everyone’s aware we’re in town and they’re all excited for it so there’s a massive rugby culture here.”

So the head coach was on the money.

“Yeah, we’re not walking around Limerick anymore! I’ve definitely got that,” noted Coombes good naturedly. “To be fair we’ve met a few Irish people around and they’ll come up to us and wish us the best of luck but the New Zealanders are letting us know what they think of us and what they expect is going to happen.

“They’re not wishing us any luck anyway. No, it’s an exciting opportunity come down here when everyone is against you and to try and prove them wrong.”

Coombes reckons he’s benefitted from being on mini tours with Munster to South Africa, albeit a second unscheduled trek there this season was the consequence of the first one being abandoned, when the number ‘8′ also contracted Covid and spent ten days in isolation in a Cape Town hotel.

“Credit to everyone in Munster, anything we needed or anything that was causing us issues we were looked after and fair play to the URC as well. It was a tough time but we came home and the new variant was fresh so they didn’t know what to do and the Irish Government made us do another ten days when we weren’t allowed to train.”

This meant he missed Munster’s first two European games away to Wasps and at home to Castres, thus typifying a frustrating, stop-start season for him and many others in Munster.

He comes into Ireland’s opening tour game against the Maori All Blacks tomorrow (kick-off 7.05pm local time/8.05am Irish) having played just once since sustaining an ankle injury against Leinster in early April.

It’s in stark contrast to last season’s breakthrough campaign, when Coombes scored 15 tries in 22 outings for Munster and made his Irish debut against Japan off the bench and a week later marked his first start with a try in the win over the USA.

He is, at least, “mentally fresh”, although as he also admitted: “Missing a lot of games, it’s tough coming back into the intensity up in Ulster and big games like this that’s coming now but I feel like with the S&C staff I had back in Munster I’m in a good place.

“Obviously watching games like Toulouse it’s hard when you’re sitting in the stands but I’m incredibly excited. I’m like a boy again going down to minis and getting that opportunity to just play every week. I guess I hadn’t had a spell on the sidelines since I’ve been playing regularly and you realise how much you miss it when you’re involved with the lads.”

Coombes’s enthusiasm for this game is heightened by the memory of Munster’s 27-14 win over the Maoris in November 2016 when the then 18-year-old was among the drenched capacity crowd.

“We’d none of the internationals and everyone stood up. It was lashing down rain sideways and some of the tries Munster scored that night were incredible. They’re the kind of games you want to be involved in and it’s very exciting to get a chance to play against the Maoris.”

The prevailing perception would be that Coombes hasn’t scaled the heights of last season when his carrying and potent finishing made light of CJ Stander’s retirement, and even added another dimension to Munster’s game with his deft handling. But that has been down to a lack of opportunities more than anything else.

“There’s definitely aspects that I feel I’ve improved on, stuff I’ve worked on since last summer but it’s just been frustrating because it’s been stop-start. But I definitely feel like in terms of game knowledge and things like that, you’re always learning and I feel like I’ve definitely improved on that.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times