"Gavin Coombes was outstanding" - Munster's ray of hope as European light snuffed out
"The Munster back row really stood up."
Toulouse knew what was coming. Gavin Coombes was going to tap-and-go from five metres out. The French side lined their biggest men up.
They knew what was coming.
Kaino. Marchand. Aldegheri. Castets. All of them primed for a charge from the young Munster back-row from West Cork.
Coombes' technique was perfect. He got three big strides and got low; waiting for the cavalry. In steamed Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer for the extra ballast. Coombes got the shunt and protected the ball as he dropped on the Toulouse tryline.
"If you saw that in a U10s match you'd understand!"
Love that from @docallaghan4 😂
There's something beautiful about the "schoolboy style" tap-and-go from the ground resulting in a try for @Munsterrugby 💪#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/lD8JDDdunW
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 3, 2021
With Joey Carbery converting, that put Munster 23-16 ahead. So many of their players - Damian De Allende, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Tadhg Beirne, Jack O'Donoghue and Coombes - were coming up with big plays, but they could never get further than a score ahead.
The most impressive aspect of Toulouse, in their 40-33 Champions Cup win over Munster, was how they kept up a full-on pace for so many of the 80+ minutes at Thomond Park. Not many sides could have stuck with them, on Saturday. And yet, Munster will have plenty of regrets after an early exit in Limerick.
On the latest House of Rugby Ireland episode [LISTEN from 1:30 below], Fergus McFadden and Eimear Considine discussed were it went wrong for Munster and highlighted a couple of positives their supporters can cling to.
Despite being part of a Leinster team with an impressive European Cup stretch, McFadden is well aware of how early exits can sting for weeks, not days. The only crumb of comfort, he feels, for some Munster fans is their side landed some punches and were much more in the fight than their flat Guinness PRO14 Final outing, last weekend.
"Tadhg Beirne was getting over the ball and turning it over quickly... The back row, for Munster, really stood up. Gavin Coombes had an outstanding game. He managed to get over for that [50th minute] try and showed incredible strength for that.
"They definitely missed Peter O'Mahony's leadership, though, and if he had been playing from the start, they would have had stronger guys coming in for that last 20 minutes."
In terms of raw numbers, Coombes made 39 metres off 19 carries, scored two tries, made three offloads, stuck nine tackles and secured his team a turnover.
On that Munster back row, Considine says Jack O'Donoghue was "phenomenal" while Coombes has shown he can be a mainstay in the Starting XV.
"They have some really talented young guys coming through. Gavin Coombes has been brilliant. For such a young guy, he was playing against one of the biggest packs in Europe, and he showed his strength and quality.
"You've got Craig Casey getting a bit more exposure... and there are other guys who have got snippets of game-time this year. You've the young second row Thomas Ahern, who was playing for Ireland Under 20s and he's gotten some game-time. They've some bright sparks coming out of the academy and hopefully that will make them stronger next season."
The Rainbow Cup is up next for Munster, so there is not much time to lick wounds and stew over what could have been. There is one last opportunity to win some silverware and give a more upbeat send-off for departing players like Billy Holland and CJ Stander (both retiring), Darren Sweetnam and JJ Hanrahan.
No further signings for 2021/22 have been announced yet, aside from South African forward Jason Jenkins. There could yet be a fillip, in the form of Simon Zebo's return, in the off-season but Munster will be asking their young players to get up to speed with top level rugby on the job.
In Coombes, they have a guy that is proving he is up for the challenge. For Munster, they need more than a few more to follow his lead.