Thursday 27 July 2017

'I love it when the stakes are high - I'm a big-game player'

The Big Interview: Simon Zebo

Simon Zebo reckons Munster have learned the lessons from their loss to Saracens
Simon Zebo reckons Munster have learned the lessons from their loss to Saracens

Daragh Small

Simon Zebo prides himself on rising to the challenge and performing on the big occasion. And although he was devastated to miss out on a Lions call-up, he still hopes to be involved in plenty of competitive action before the end of the season.

The 27-year-old Corkonian has scored 52 tries in 117 Munster appearances, and he will look to add to that and help his side win their first silverware since 2011 with the Guinness Pro12 title this month.

Munster crashed out of Europe when they lost their Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens, and that performance smacked of a young side still finding their way in the latter stages of the competition.

It takes years of hard knocks to reach Champions Cup finals and win them - Saracens are a perfect example of that.

Munster suffered plenty of hardship in Europe in the early 2000s until they finally got over the line when they beat Biarritz in the 2006 final.

It was the culmination of a lot of hard work from a battle-hardened Munster side, and Zebo knows that with a bit more experience this team are capable of getting back centre stage.

"It was a disappointing exit in the Champions Cup but we were second best that day, hopefully we can learn a few lessons and get into the final soon," he says.

"Saracens were just the extra couple of years together as a squad. We have been through some rough times but we have come out the other end of that. We are finding our feet again in Europe. Being two scores away from a final isn't the worst place to be.

"The pressure situations for some of our younger players were probably a bit much. Those games are a big learning curve for them and hopefully we won't make those mistakes again.

"But we had chances to score and we didn't take them. It's just probably a little bit of big-game syndrome. And we didn't collectively perform the way we would have expected to.

"But we can see the development happening already in such a short space of time. It's only been a few weeks and I feel we have already come on a long way and hopefully we can demonstrate that this week."

Tomorrow's Pro12 semi-final against Ospreys is another huge litmus test for Munster, to see whether they can they cope on the big occasion.

Replicate

Munster have already downed the likes of Glasgow Warriors, Leicester Tigers, Racing 92, and Toulouse in front of a packed Thomond Park and they will need to replicate that form in Limerick tomorrow.

Munster haven't featured in a Pro12 final since 2015 where Glasgow hammered them 31-13 at Kingspan Stadium.

Zebo started that day, and despite the club's fortunes taking a downturn since then, they have re-emerged this season, and he believes they have every chance of reaching another final.

"Ospreys have a young squad now coming through. A few of their elder statesmen have moved on. But they have some exciting talent and they are developing nicely as a team," he says

"They are definitely a team that you can't take for granted because they are incredibly talented and can score from anywhere.

"But hopefully we have two matches left. It should be a great occasion, as close to a sell-out as possible. The support should bode well for us achieving qualification for the final."

With the pitches hardened up and the season hitting crunch time, Zebo is confident he can take control of the situation and put his best foot forward for Munster and Ireland.

"As soon as the big games start coming around that's when I would usually be at my best. It's something I pride myself on, being a big-game player and it's nothing I shy away from.

"It's a pressure situation it's the high stakes for the games, they're the ones I enjoy the most. And they're the ones that test players and see what they are about mentally.

"I love the big games and usually when there's something on the line, I give my best performances."

And there's nothing bigger in the game than a Lions tour, or maybe a World Cup. Zebo may have missed out on the former, but he hopes to give a good account of himself against Ireland's 2019 World Cup Pool A opponents Japan on tour this summer.

"It will be important for the core group of the squad to feel what it's like to play in Japan, in a Japanese stadium, and the atmosphere for a home game against Japan," he says.

"But teams can drastically improve or get worse within a year, never mind two. It could be a totally different team that plays them in the World Cup.

"It's not a massive give-away with regards to what will happen in the World Cup.

"One of the main things was to try and improve our world ranking as much as possible and that's what every country is trying to do, it will tell in your group. But these days no international match is easy or anything like that.

"Being in a group with teams like New Zealand, England, Australia or France would have been tough. But our group is incredibly tough still and there is no easy results there either.

"You are dealt the card you are dealt and we have just got to roll our sleeves up and get as much momentum as we can going into the World Cup."

Irish Independent

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