ON the wall of Beaumont Boys School in Cork, a large photograph stares out which defies you not to smile. It is of a scrum of the happiest 11-year-olds, all playing up to the camera to celebrate a sporting triumph and peeping out in the middle is the cheeky face of a black kid with his tongue sticking out.
“Isn’t that great? That’s our Simon, always at the heart of it all,” school principal Norma Ryan says with a smile, and 11 years later Simon Zebo, the new fresh, twinkletoed prince of Irish rugby, still is. “Ah, there’s a touch of Zebomania around all right.”
So, which team was in that 2002 picture? For a moment, Norma and Zebo’s old sports teacher Liam Weir have to think about it, because the point about their Simon was that he was brilliant at five different sports.
This, it turns out, was the school’s county championship-winning Gaelic football team. Next to it, though, is a snap of Zebo helping the under-12s hurling team to their equivalent victory. And one of him with the school’s All Ireland six-a-side soccer champions. Somewhere, there is a snap too of him zooming to the Cork county under-sevens sprint trophy.
Finally, you come to Zebo the rugby nipper; yet, even now, his teachers at Beaumont argue that it is not his best sport. “I’m biased. I’d say he was best at [Gaelic] football,” says Weir. “Now, Aidan [Buckley, athletics coach] would say athletics and Padraig [Keating, the deputy principal] would say soccer. But here’s the thing; we all say even at tiddlywinks, he’d have beaten the world too!” This fella, in short, is a natural. Rugby just got lucky.
Keating was the soccer coach - responsible, arguably, for Zebo’s impossible try-creating back heel and catch at the Millennium Stadium last week, the best bit of Irish footballing magic since another useful No 11 Georgie Best was in his pomp. “I suppose I am,” muses Keating, one chuffed teacher. “Go on, I’ll take that one!”
The pride everyone here in Blackrock, Cork’s sporting hub, feels about the winged winger, the talk of all Ireland ahead of England’s visit to Dublin on Sunday, is really warming. There is obvious adoration for the 22-year-old local hero here. Why? Because the kid in that picture has not changed a bit, everyone swears; his lightning on-field daring and dazzle is still fuelled by the same infectious, freewheeling spirit.
“He still has that same smile when he plays now, just as he did as a boy. He lifts everyone; I saw him for Munster against Saracens recently and he still does it; the crowd just reacts to him. It’s star quality, I suppose,” Keating says with a shrug.
At school, he says, that quality would see Zebo on the hurling field performing wonders with a stick so small that he might as well have been using a wooden spoon; then minutes later he would be back in the classroom leading a showstopping rendition of ‘I’m the king of the swingers’.
Last Saturday offered a similar, grown-up equivalent. In the afternoon, his ‘score one, made one’ tour de force against Wales so captured everyone’s imagination that when he walked back into the Cardiff Hilton afterwards, even the locals were serenading the modest champion with “Zeeee-bo!”
Then, back in Cork that night, he was whooping it up into the early hours on the DJ’s turntable at the town’s biggest nightclub Havana Browns. As Brian O’Driscoll hardly needed to note: “That freshness and energy, it’s just great; Zeebs is one of a kind.” With star quality, though, comes mad expectation. The only ones declining to rave in public about Zebo are his parents, with whom Simon still lives in the quiet suburb of Ballintemple. Not that mum Lynda would not like to.
“Honestly, I could wax lyrical about him all day,” she says. “Thank you, we’re flattered but the mania’s been a bit overwhelming and we feel we should protect Simon. So if you don’t mind.” Never a sweeter snub was heard.
Mr and Mrs Zebo are stars too, everyone says. Simon has his dad Arthur’s strapping quarter-miler’s physique and the same lovely, laid-back demeanour. Arthur hails from the Caribbean island of Martinique, came to France to do military service and was weeks away from racing Steve Ovett and eventual champion Alberto Juantorena in the 800m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Sadly, his dream was scuppered by a broken leg, suffered after a parachute jump.
Arthur met the Cork lass Lynda, they fell in love and he followed her back to Ireland, where he is a chemical processor. Their eldest girl Jessika, six years Simon’s senior, has become one of Ireland’s best hurdlers, just missing out on a place in last year’s Olympics.
As for Simon, they knew at Cork Constitution, the famed old rugby club which has fashioned 40 Irish internationals like Tom Kiernan, Donal Lenihan and Ronan O’Gara, that they had someone very different on their hands when Arthur brought his seven-year-old lad along to training with the ‘Conettes’.
John O’Mahony, Zebo’s first coach there, smiles at the memory. A decade ago, there were practically no black players at Cork Con so it was a surprise and delight to see this young trailblazer scorching around.
“I’d not seen anyone like him. Wow, that speed! He was a big lad; you could see his dad’s tall, well-built physique in him and his lovely personality too,” recalls O’Mahony. “My son Peter was playing too and hit it off with him from the start.”
Even now, this proud dad cannot quite believe that those childhood buddies will both be lining up together in the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. “They’ve travelled together for 15 years, their careers running parallel; Presentation Brothers College, Munster schools, Irish schools, under 19, under 20, junior World Cup and now their pictures are on the wall in the clubhouse as Cork Con’s latest internationals. I’m living the dream; to have a son playing at international level and his pal becoming the big star.”
The pals could not be more different out there, laughs O’Mahony. There is his Peter, all deadly serious and focused; and then there is Zebo, so laid-back that he was even chatting breezily to the touch judge moments just before his try. “You know, he brings a great sense of fun to an occasion which sometimes can be so bloody serious,” laughs O’Mahony.
Ultimately, Zebo’s other sporting gifts - he was in the same Beaumont hurling team as Hull’s Irish international soccer player David Meyler - were sidelined one by one as rugby took precedence and the tries flowed.
He still has a bit of a kid’s daring in him - “That back heel? You’d see plenty of stuff like that, and it didn’t always come off either!” laughs his old senior Cork Con coach Brian Walsh - which is, presumably, why kids love him.
Last year, Zebo took the club’s boys for summer training and asked them if they had any ideas for a try celebration for him. They came up with the double-handed ‘Z’ which is now his ever more familiar trademark.
So England beware; like they will warn you here in Cork, when you run into the Z man, it’s like being bamboozled by Zidane, then sliced up by a smiling Zorro. And he could even break into song too. “Now, I’m the king of the wingers!”