Saturday 23 September 2017

O'Connell: Zebo a special talent

Waratahs 17, Lions 47

Simon Zebo gets tackled by NSW Waratahs' Paddy Ryan (left) and Tom Carter
Simon Zebo gets tackled by NSW Waratahs' Paddy Ryan (left) and Tom Carter
15 June 2013; Jonathan Sexton, British & Irish Lions, celebrates after scoring his side's first try. British & Irish Lions Tour 2013, NSW Waratahs v British & Irish Lions, Allianz Stadium, Sydney, NSW, Australia. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Conor George

Conor George

PAUL O'CONNELL'S reaction said it all. When asked about the immediate and explosive impact of his Munster team-mate Simon Zebo on the Lions squad and, indeed, the team, the smile of delight that lit up his face was expansive enough to illuminate a small town.

PAUL O'CONNELL'S reaction said it all. When asked about the immediate and explosive impact of his Munster team-mate Simon Zebo on the Lions squad and, indeed, the team, the smile of delight that lit up his face was expansive enough to illuminate a small town.

"I'd love his kind of confidence!" laughed O'Connell. "It's special and a sight to behold and I thought he did really well.

"He's one of these players that just doesn't seem to make mistakes. He has all the flair and all the skills and everything but he doesn't make mistakes either. He's a great balance of a spectacular and solid winger.

"I thought he was really good and a real pleasure to play with."

Saturday's match was, at last, a game to savour, a contest of real impact and genuine excitement, a convergence of extravagant entertainment and spectacle. The Lions' rugby was, at times, just as impressive, just as irresistible as the level of athletic physicality they brought to their game and was far in advance of anything the Waratahs had to offer.

There were many standout performances, not least Zebo's, and Jonathan Davies certainly inked his name into the Test team.

O'Connell was a colossus. The Irish veteran played a hugely influential role until he was replaced in the 59th minute, clearly a nod to next Saturday's opening Test when the talismanic second-row will be charged with leading the Lions to a crucial victory.

It is looking increasingly probable that Sam Warburton will somehow hang on to his starting place and the captaincy, but the reality is that this Lions team is one driven by O'Connell and his compatriot Brian O'Driscoll.

As impressive as the Lions were – and at times their play flowed with the smoothness of lightly whipped cream – there was no hint that they might fall into the trap of resting on their laurels. If O'Connell has anything to do with it, preparations will probably step up this week.

"Australia are a really good side and will be a lot different to what we've experienced in terms of intensity and physicality," he warned.

"The game against the Waratahs was brilliant but the Australian Test side will be a lot different.

"We've a very tough three weeks ahead of us and we need to prepare to the best of our ability because I think we can guarantee that, physically and intensity-wise, the Tests are going to be a big step up."

O'Connell's standing and reputation as one of the team's leaders was borne out by his performance on Saturday. He was imperious in the line-out, gloried in the fast and fluid way the Lions played the game and he showed the capacity to offload with breathtaking speed and accuracy – talents that have not always been in evidence in his Munster and Ireland career.

His selection for the Test team has never been in question from the moment he performed so magnificently for Munster in their Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Harlequins under the watchful eye of Warren Gatland.

O'Connell's performances for the Lions on this tour have merely cemented that belief – although there is a natural modesty about him still.

"Ah wait a minute. You have to get selected before you can start talking about giving a message to any team-mates," was his response.

It is incredible to experience O'Connell's modesty and self-doubt despite all he has achieved in his career. The tremor in his voice on Saturday was clearly due to the exertions of the game he had just starred in but the nervousness about the upcoming Test game, and indeed his own selection, was very real.

"Unfortunately for me the nervousness is getting worse and worse! It's easier when you're young and you don't have a whole lot of responsibility. That's the same for everyone.

"Nerves are part of it and it makes you prepare, get as ready as you can."

The proximity of the first Test was obvious from the kick-off on Saturday. The Lions exploded on the Waratahs so suddenly that any suggestion of complacency or that the Lions were somehow holding back quickly evaporated into the ether.

Zebo was denied inside the opening 50 seconds by a late stray foot in touch and overall the Lions were hugely impressive – united and balanced in the tight, full of menace and imagination in their moves behind the scrum.

Jonathan Sexton was at the heart of everything positive in the opening half as he capably dealt with increasingly nasty attention from the Waratahs players. Indeed he was quickly withdrawn from the contest just nine minutes into the second half after Waratahs prop Jeremy Tilse disgracefully used his forearm to choke the out-half.

It was a nasty move, unprovoked and unwarranted and it reflected no credit on Tilse or on his colleagues who did nothing to restrain him. The prop's action confirmed the belief that was established early in the game that Sexton was on their 'wanted list'.

During the first half he shrugged off the late challenges and 'lazy' tacklers to conjure up some of his customary magic. He actually opened the scoring when he initiated and finished off a move for the game's opening try.

The Waratahs were able to keep the Lions in sight in the first half – the 21-10 scoreline was no disgrace – but in the second half the tourists pulled away with Davies in particularly impressive form with a try and three assists. Tom Croft was outstanding at blindside flanker while Leigh Halfpenny was again magnificent from the kicking tee and also added two tries to his personal tally.

Halfpenny entered the record books as the Lion to score the most points in a single match on Australian soil. The bolter, though, was Zebo and he was singled out by Gatland yesterday.

"I spoke to Simon afterwards and he described it as an unbelievable experience. Simon was one who was unlucky to miss out initially. I asked him to make me ask questions with regard to the Test team and he did that," admitted Gatland.

The Ireland winger certainly took the chance afforded him with a performance that impressed most observers, not least his Munster and Ireland colleague O'Connell.

"He's a guy that isn't coming in just to tread water and do his best. He's going to try and get straight into the Test team and that's what you need," said the towering second-row.

Saturday's outing was certainly one that will benefit the Lions as they enter Test week. Overall their up-to-date report card must be stamped thus – Progress Reported.

NSW Waratahs – D Mitchell; C Crawford, R Horne, T Carter (T Kingston, 47), P Betham (B Volavola, 76); B Foley, B McKibbin; J Tilse, J Ulugia, P Ryan, W Skelton, O Atkins, J Holloway, P McCutcheon (A Gilbert, 56), D Dennis (capt).

Lions – L Halfpenny (R Kearney, 59); S Maitland, J Davies, J Roberts, S Zebo; J Sexton (O Farrell, 49), M Phillips (B Youngs, 59); M Vunipola (A Corbisiero, 59), T Youngs (R Hibbard, 59), A Jones (D Cole, 59), AW Jones, P O'Connell (G Parling, 59), T Croft (D Lydiate, 59), S Warburton (capt), J Heaslip.

Ref – J Peyper (South Africa)

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