Sunday 20 August 2017

Zebo stands tall as Munster go for glory

Ireland flyer is philosophical about his Lions omission and says he's sick of trophyless seasons

Better known for his rugby feats for both Munster and Ireland, Simon Zebo – a Bord Gáis Energy ambassador – was a talented hurler and played with Blackrock in Cork from a young age, like some of the young hurlers he met on a recent visit to the club. He is very proud of his GAA roots and of the fact he is #HurlingToTheCore. Photo: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Better known for his rugby feats for both Munster and Ireland, Simon Zebo – a Bord Gáis Energy ambassador – was a talented hurler and played with Blackrock in Cork from a young age, like some of the young hurlers he met on a recent visit to the club. He is very proud of his GAA roots and of the fact he is #HurlingToTheCore. Photo: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Had Simon Zebo's life taken a different course, the 27-year-old might well have been preparing for tomorrow's Munster SHC opener at Semple Stadium rather than this evening's Guinness PRO12 play-off.

He grew up in an era where Munster and Cork were competing for hearts and minds as they collected silverware on a regular basis, playing both codes until the time came to choose and having attended the 2006 Heineken Cup final in Cardiff, the oval-ball game won out.

Growing up, he won plenty of trophies in both games but at senior level success has eluded him so far.

If he'd gone with hurling, it's unlikely the vista would be any different.

Now, the full-back and his team are two steps from their first piece of silverware since 2011.

His prolific try-scoring has already ensured his place in the Munster pantheon, but individual acclaim only gets you so far. Team prizes are what the game is all about and Zebo is determined to take the next step.

Munster and Ireland player Simon Zebo. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Munster and Ireland player Simon Zebo. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"Everyone wants one," he says when asked if the Reds' season of progress demands a trophy.

"I've had too many seasons now where I haven't won a trophy, it's hugely frustrating as a Munster man.

"Collectively, where the team is capable of going and what we want to do as a squad is competing for Europe every year and winning European titles.

"So, the PRO12 would be a nice stepping-stone but if we lose this week then it is what it is; we've come a long way from where we were last year and people are probably quick to forget how horrible things were and how badly people were giving out and talking about us.

"That's all changed, there's a great buzz in Munster Rugby and we're very excited about the future."

Rather than a first-year transformation from director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, Zebo believes Munster's revival is part of the process instigated by Anthony Foley when he took over in 2014.

"It started two, three years ago when Axel first took over and this is it coming to fruition; we're starting to perform to the best of our ability; each and every one of us," he reflects.

"That's why we're starting to drive it on, the coaches have brought in a new way of thinking and a new game-plan but that was easy to adapt to.

"It's not a million miles away from what we were trying to do anyway.

"That's why the relationship with Axel and Rassie was so good, why the players found it easy to buy into.

"We were in transition when we were first taken over (by Foley) a few years back, but now we've got a real tight, close group and there's a lot of players in core positions playing really well, playing really good rugby and that's a big factor. Competition for places is really high.

"All bodes well."

One of the noticeable things about this Munster team is how they have engineered a break from past glories.

At their impressive training centre in the University of Limerick, the pictures that adorn the walls are of current stars and the images from the last decade are conspicuous by their absence.

For many years the past acted as a burden on the shoulders of this generation of players. Zebo never saw it that way - he was inspired by the acts of the great team of the 2000s - but he accepts that some of his team-mates felt the pressure to continue that success.

"We want to have our own identity as a squad," he says.

"We don't want to be living off past memories of victories.

"Even though they're incredible memories and it's great for the province, it still probably hangs over some players as a bit of a cloud and you want to get away from that.

"You want to make sure that we're the ones who are on the posters lifting all of the trophies, etc.

"It's a new High Performance Centre, a new crop of players and squad. Even though the past for Munster Rugby is incredible, it's more about the future.

"Nothing would weigh too much on me like that, that's just the way I am. I love everything about where we've come from, '06, '08 and Celtic Leagues to beat the band... it's great.

"The past that Munster have and tradition but there's players... we need to grab it by the scruff of the neck and make sure that this team is remembered like those teams."

That Zebo wears the expectation that comes with the red jersey lightly is indicative of his easy-going personality.

His approach to the professional game has sometimes been at odds with the serious, systems-based approach adopted by coaches but his strengths almost always win through.

Even when he hurled, he sometimes clashed with the men in charge but he has stubbornly refused to change his style and he's the better for it.

"I probably got given out to a fair bit for trying unrealistic scores but that was just in my nature," he says with a smile of his hurling days.

"I just loved the speed and the skill level of the game. It was something else, it brought some skills into my rugby.

"But in terms of my playing style, I'd have been an off-the-cuff kind of player. Just have a go.

"We'd great coaches coming up and as long as you whipped on the ball when it was on the ground and just play what you see... I played with some classy players when I was coming up too; none made it to the Cork team but we'd a great team underage, we won a lot and I loved the nature of the sport.

"At the level I was at, there was no structure behind it. You literally went out and gave it your best and that's what I loved most about it.

"They were both very glamorous options and I'd a lot of idols on both teams that I wanted to go out and emulate.

"Rugby probably won because of the time of year when I was making my decision, it was when Senior Cup was coming up and it was the talk of the school really.

"I just wanted to experience playing in Thomond Park. I went to the Heineken Cup final in 2006, that was fresh in my memory when I was making the decision.

"Rugby won out, it's gone alright, so I can't complain."

His approach means he doesn't take disappointments too hard either.

This is arguably his best season and he has been a fixture in the Ireland starting XV and counts Australia, New Zealand and England among his scalps but his performances weren't deemed strong enough to earn a place in the Lions squad for the summer tour of New Zealand.

Instead, he'll be a senior man on the Ireland tour of the United States and Japan.

"It's tough, because every player wants to represent the Lions as many times as possible and everybody wanted that phone call," he says.

"It didn't come, but there's incredible competition for places. The back three, you look at the talent there is; throughout the whole squad you could have had a totally different 41.

"So, yeah, the squad that was picked is incredibly talented and I've no doubt they'll do something special.

"You never know, it is a pretty arduous and tough tour so a call could come at any time for any player, so it's about focusing and not hanging down in the dumps. You get on with it, it's professional sport."

Four years ago, he got that call and flew from Houston, Texas to Australia to join up with the squad.

On the night he got the call, his joy was unconfined but when he touched down it was all business. Playing catch-up in the intensive environment of a Lions squad is no easy task.

"It was quite tough, you were playing catch-up alright. Just little things, even going out training and not knowing the basic moves and calls, things like that," he recalls.

Chances

"You don't have much time to adapt, you're playing with the best of the best in the British and Irish game, so you've to know your stuff and you don't get many second chances to impress.

"As soon as any games come out, midweek games or whatever, you just have to make sure you know your stuff and play well.

"It is tough, but any player who's called out will have more than enough opportunity to catch up quick."

He believes he is a better player than he was in 2013 and if the call comes he will be ready to take his chance.

If it doesn't, he'll throw himself into the Ireland tour and hope his influence rubs off on some of the young guns making their first trip.

"I've just got to keep trying to improve and doing the special things I can," he says.

"Hopefully, just make myself the all-round player I want to be and then in a couple of years I'll be hitting my peak and see how good I am then.

"The tour will just be about giving the best I can. It's not every day you get to wear the green jersey so it'll be a great learning curve, especially with the World Cup there in a couple of years.

"You want to learn as much as possible before potentially going down there again.

"There's a lot of youth on tour, players who've played well this season who want to be in Six Nations and autumn squads so it's trying to pass on any information or knowledge or skills that I bring to the table, just like I do with Munster."

Before then, there is the small matter of earning a medal with his home province.

It's been a while, but Zebo says there's no additional pressure on the players' shoulders.

"I was chatting to Earlsy (Keith Earls) about it, there's about five or six of us who have played three or four semi-finals and lost all of them; it probably hangs on us more so than the majority of the squad," he says.

"So we're hungry as ever to get over the line but we know that where we've come from as a new squad to where we are now is hugely exciting.

"If nothing happens this year, it is what it is, but at least we're contesting and pushing for trophies again which is the main thing."

The hurl remains in his back pocket and he retains the hope that he'll pick it up again when he calls time on the rugby.

Whenever that day comes, however, he wants some silverware to show for his efforts.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport