Wales rugby: Andrew Coombs keeping his feet on the ground as big guns return
IT is the story of the Six Nations so far, the unheralded forward coming from nowhere to seize his chance in the big time, but now the shadow of Lions lock Alun Wyn Jones is looming large over Andrew Coombs.
It isn't exaggerating to say Coombs has been a revelation in this tournament.
Called into the national squad from the Dragons, after spells with Pontypool and Newport, the 28-year-old Nelson product had been expected just to be a stop-gap, keeping the No. 4 jersey warm until Wales's second-row injury problems eased.
But Coombs has adapted so well to elite rugby he has probably surprised himself.
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Not only has he coped with the immense physical demands that are placed on those who spend their time toiling in what Bill McLaren used to term the boilerhouse, he has also brought a back-rower's mobility to the role, putting in 21 tackles over two games and achieving three turnovers, a figure bettered only by Kelly Brown and Thierry Dusautoir in the entire Six Nations.
Hollywood isn't his style. He doesn't scatter opponents back yards when on the charge and he has so far rationed out the monster hits. But there is constant effort. Were he a boxer he would be the type who unleashes a thousand punches over 12 rounds, relentlessly wearing down the opposition, instead of the sort who look for spectacular knock-outs.
But the competition is in camp now in the shape of the fit-again Jones, skipper of the Ospreys and a player who many see as a Test Lion in Australia this summer.
Coombs is a fan but he is also determined to hold his place.
"Alun Wyn is a fantastic player and I have always enjoyed watching him," said Coombs.
"Not only does he have a phenomenal work rate, he is also a class act, has won 67 caps, been a British Lion and been there and done it.
"You always have players breathing down your neck whatever the squad — the pressure is part of the job.
"Alun Wyn is back and the coaches will probably want to get him back on the field to see what sort of form he is in.
"He's a good player and so is Ian Evans. Our schools were next to each other, so I know Ian really well. I've always rated him and he has done really well for himself.
"But I just want to keep my game going, play as I have played in the first two games and retain my shirt.
"My form is good and it's all about keeping it going. If I can keep the jersey for this campaign then there is a tour of Japan in the summer. I am just looking to get as many caps as I can."
Coombs can only be admired for the way he has handled the step up to the Test scene.
He hasn't just made a mark on the pitch. Off the pitch he has done well, too, taking the challenge of significant media attention in his stride.
He has struck a blow for all those who ply their trade at lower levels dreaming that one day they might get an opportunity to spend some time in the sun.
Not that the past month has changed him.
His picture may have been in the papers, and there may have been the odd appearance on TV news in Wales, but his feet are still firmly on the ground.
"Not a lot has changed," he said.
"I did get recognised in Asda last Friday night but that is about it. You have to keep your feet on the ground. I'm just really enjoying it. It was daunting going into the stadium in Paris a week last Saturday and the French national anthem was powerful but you've got to enjoy those moments. You can't be afraid of anything. You just have to go for it."
It's Italy on Saturday and Coombs is looking to put in another big shift, the sometime-flanker feeling his experience in the back row is coming in handy.
"A second row isn't looked at as your main ball-carrying source," he said. "It's usually the blindside and No. 8, so I suppose my background does help a bit.
"I've always had the attitude that I want the ball in my hands and I don't think the game is that different at lock."
However it goes in Rome and whatever happens over the rest of the championship, Coombs has shown he can play.
He has shown it is possible for a player to emerge without fanfare and cope with the best that European rugby can throw at him.
Now it is all about playing well for a third game running and giving the selectors a headache of migraine proportions ahead of the game with Scotland.