Thursday 23 February 2017

Zebo time as Reds finally hit top gear

NORTHAMPTON 36
MUNSTER 51

David Kelly

David Kelly

Simon Zebo is all smiles as he goes over for his third try
Simon Zebo is all smiles as he goes over for his third try
Simon Zebo is all smiles as he goes over for his third try
The Munster wing fends off the challenge of Northampton's Samu Manoa

Step aside Mr Tebow. Now it's Zebo time. Suddenly, it's as if NFL play-off weekend has decamped to a glum business park 40 miles north of London.

"It's awesome," beamed the 21-year-old hat-trick hero Simon Zebo, whose individual coming of age on this sumptuous day of days seemed to reflect the collective after some stormy transition days.

"We always have great support with Munster. I suppose a lot of them haven't really seen me play and so when they get the chance to chant my name, they probably would. I'm happy."

And so were they. As the red hordes chanted the young Cork man's name, the overwhelming sense of something exotic being injected into Munster's Heineken Cup campaign was tangible.

Before, there had been vague mutterings of intent down south.

Now, there is a definite sense of purpose among the ranks, after this annihilation of supposed English standard- bearers who, ultimately, could offer little as a defence against utter subjugation.

And so, they emulate Northampton in winning all their pool matches; their next trick, and few would doubt them should this resurgence hold fast, is to ensure that they break the cycle that has seen no Heineken Cup winner succeed in all nine games.

"I hope we can," insisted Paul O'Connell, the totemic colossus who, along with Ronan O'Gara, continues to set the standard for their younger successors to follow. "There is a long way to go, and we have a long way to go yet as well. The ball ran our way a little bit today, which was great.

"I think we have a way to go to get up to the standards of the Leinsters and the Toulouses of the Heineken Cup yet. But certainly, with a bit of luck and the rub of the green, we have a chance of winning it."

And for Zebo, it represents a transformation in fortunes that is equally as dramatic; from the raised eyebrows at his inclusion in a list of players 'invited' to Ireland training, there will now be inevitable, if premature, calls for him to be propelled directly into the full squad.

"I really haven't been thinking about that," Zebo demurred. "I've just been focusing on tonight. It was great to get that call from Declan, but we had a job to do tonight and that's all that's been on my mind really."

His focus is admirable. Those who have followed his progress have always been aware of the incredible speed that rendered comic figures of the Saints' defenders. His father hails from Martinique and could have been an Olympic sprinter for France were it not for injury; sister Jessica is a prominent figure in Leevale AC and ran for Ireland in the European Indoor relays three years ago.

Less certain has been his commitment to defence. The fact that the player who once flirted with a modelling career is only now making the breakthrough clearly betrayed certain doubts within the management about how substance could trump style.

Saturday offered a thumping response beyond the headline-stealing hat-trick, notably fine restart snaffles, the first leading to BJ Botha's critical first-half try just when it seemed Northampton were planting a firm foothold on proceedings.

The second arrived minutes after the break and signified the rapid increase in tempo, his take providing the platform for his forwards and the sweeping left-to-right move that allowed Johne Murphy to complete the best, arguably overshadowed, finish of the day on Zebo's opposite wing.

"Simon has certainly been making his mark this season through the opportunity of Dougie Howlett being out," offered coach Tony McGahan. "But Simon is somebody we've had our eye on for a little while and I think we've seen the progression of him through the pool stages as well."

Zebo, a former PBC and Ireland underage star, made his first competitive start for Munster in the Celtic League against Connacht two seasons ago and after one year in the academy, he secured a full contract at the start of this season.

"It's good to get on the scoreboard, but with the offloads of the Mafis and Denis Hurleys, and the play-making of ROG, it makes it easier for me to score those tries," Zebo added modestly, confessing that his final try, the fine scissors switch off Ian Keatley, was his favourite.

"Credit has to go to the boys inside me. Dougie would be a mentor, he's always giving me tips and stuff like that. He's always been somebody I've looked up to. He's been my idol since I was a young fellah and I want to try to emulate him as much as possible."

On a day when another winger's antics were highlighted by his absence -- that of Chris Ashton -- Zebo's virtues on and off the field are laudable. His progress will now be followed with even keener interest, as will his team's.

What was perhaps even more fulfilling than the extraordinary nature of the half-century of points and the pulsating nature of the win was the manner in which, belatedly, creation married itself with precision.

Munster had warned a day of reckoning was soon approaching. Notwithstanding their winning run, the evidence had stubbornly contradicted them -- until now.

Saturday's second half was when everything combined -- from relentless clearing out to Keith Earls' best passing performance in red -- to deliver their most consummate performance this season.

"We've been working real hard on finishing off the moves and chances that we've been getting in games," maintained Zebo. "There's been a game coming where things were going to happen for us and thankfully that was tonight."

Wherever you looked on this epic night, there was an angle, particularly from Brian Mujati in the Saints' scrum.

Two penalty tries -- admittedly, Peter O'Mahony's indiscipline prompted the first -- reflected Romain Poite's willingness to give the attacking side the benefit of the doubt. Notably, the predictably fatigue-enforced departure of messrs Mujati and Soane Tonga'uiha lessened the impact.

"They are an excellent scrumagging side but I don't think the margin between our scrums was as big as it was today," said O'Connell, before admitting, "there is a lot to be learned for our scrum from that.

"I just think the attitude was right, guys are in good shape, guys are working very hard in training, doing extras all the time. We were able to take their punches and come back and throw a few of our own."

Munster have rolled with the punches all season, particularly injury-inflicted blows. Now that they have emerged blinking into the glorious light, anything is possible. "We're going to give it our best shot," smiled McGahan.

Northampton -- B Foden; J Elliott (S Armstrong 69), G Pisi, J Downey, V Artemyev; R Lamb (S Myler 73), L Dickson (M Robert 73); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 67), D Hartley, B Mujati (P Doran Jones 65); S Manoa, M Sorenson (C Day 62); C Clark (B Nutley 62), P Dowson, R Wilson.

Munster -- D Hurley; J Murphy, K Earls, L Mafi, S Zebo; R O'Gara (I Keatley 75), C Murray (T O'Leary 67); W du Preez (M Horan 55), D Varley (D Fogarty 75), BJ Botha (S Archer 75); Donncha O'Callaghan (M O'Driscoll 72), P O'Connell; D Ryan, P O'Mahony (Dave O'Callaghan 72), J Coughlan.

Ref -- R Poite (France).

Irish Independent

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