Monday 24 July 2017

Zebo lean spell sums up Ireland's issues

Contrast in winger’s record between club and country highlights need for new Style Council to help launch World Cup challenge

Simon Zebo is lurching from one vastly different playing style to another when switching between Munster and Ireland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo is lurching from one vastly different playing style to another when switching between Munster and Ireland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Simon Zebo might be afraid to say it, probably because he would be afraid of what Joe Schmidt might say if he heard it.

But many Irish supporters are thinking it aloud. For when he plays for Ireland, Zebo's green jersey cossets him as if a strait-jacket; with Munster, he is a liberated vision in red.

It is a startling contradiction: Zebo is Munster's record try-scorer but he has not dotted down in the Six Nations for his country since his competition debut four years ago.

And it is a confusing contradiction, too. For it is not as if Zebo, the wonderfully free-spirited entertainer, is lurching from one vastly different playing style to another.

If anything, Munster are actually behind Ireland in terms of their playing style; at times, and with brilliant effectiveness, they resemble the intense kick and catch style that, although dreadful to watch for purists, drove Schmidt's men to successive Six Nations titles.

Schmidt's current Irish model have steadily transformed their game since then, and accelerated since World Cup failure; it doesn't seem like it but they are playing with more width.

Edges

They are just not doing it well; so, ironically, a game-plan that seeks to find the edges much more quickly through the hands than ever before under Schmidt has actually reduced, not increased, Zebo's effectiveness as an attacker.

Munster are implementing a much more pragmatic style but with greater effectiveness in terms of results and consistent performance levels, as well as providing a platform for a back three to finish tries.

Crucial caveats must apply in terms of the standards of opponents in Test rugby compared to the provincial game.

Also, Schmidt has had an undoubted impact on how Zebo has confronted his defensive responsibilities, journeying from being omitted from an entire championship by the coach to being an ever-present.

Yet, as Connacht proved last season and is explained elsewhere on this page regarding the U-20s, the style of play is not yet uniform in this country and presumably, David Nucifora, Schmidt's boss, has as his main aim a move towards replicating the New Zealand template.

That is Schmidt's desire too, and his work at Leinster illustrated what he can do, given time.

For now, taking Zebo in isolation, however imprecise an example, he is stuck in the middle.

"I try and have more of an impact on play up here, as opposed to when I'm in Munster," he told us during this campaign.

"The play would more naturally come to me (with Munster), and I'd be looked for a bit more, whereas up here I'd need to go looking for it a bit more.

"I find myself in first receiver, trying to make try assists, rather than dotting down tries."

Indeed, he had to fill in at ten when Jonathan Sexton was binned last Friday but needs must.

Ireland need a play-making 12, like England, to find width but only Sexton can fulfil both roles at the moment and it was noticeable Zebo thrived in his Friday cameo there. The problem was he was no longer on the wing.

"It is hard because, as a winger, I am suppose to keep width as well," he said. "It is harder for me to come off my wing and go in and play-make because you have to be in there for a few phases and you have to get someone else with a different role to go out onto the wing.

"It's tough. But, I have the licence to do it when the chances are there. It is harder to go there from the wing.

"It is frustrating that we're not getting the results. That is the thing. If the ball doesn't come out to the wing for the whole game and we win, it doesn't matter.

"But, if there are spaces out there and we're leaving tries behind, then it's frustrating.

"Hopefully, we can see the space and exploit it sooner and be more clinical. Whether that is out wide or in around the fringes, that's what we have to do. We need to be more clinical in our attack and we'll be on the verge of a very good performance."

Schmidt's preference this week for Fergus McFadden, who has played little rugby and is not first-choice for his province, was defined by realism and reliability.

Zebo insists, echoing the squad, that Ireland are desperately close to producing some finished - and finishing - product to reverse the momentum.

"It does seem different after a couple of losses. It can take a lot out of the momentum of the side," he said.

"But we've done our review and tried to fix the things where we have gone wrong, be more clinical and try and score some tries.

"We're hopefully going to correct a few wrongs this week. We're close. We're not perfect at the moment.

"It is little mistakes, little errors that's costing us. We left a lot of chances out there in the Principality and we did against Scotland as well.

"They've come back to bite us. We just need to be more clinical and focus on the good side of our game and really progress and put in a good performance this week.

Aware

"At times, it's not getting to the space. We are aware of that on the pitch and we let the boys inside us know

"If there is breakdown in communication and people are getting in the way of passes that need to go, we let the people know.

"We're trying to get it there, trying to find all space - is the backfield open? Or at the frontline if they are trying to wedge off onto outside backs, then the front doors are going to be open.

"It is about finding the space at the right time. When it's on, then go wide, sometimes it just hasn't gotten there."

While reports of Schmidt's iron rule are often exaggerated, there is a marked difference in how Zebo describes the sense that freedom of expression, immune from harsh criticism, is allowed in Munster.

"If you make a mistake, 'no problem'," he explained earlier this spring. "I probably haven't heard that too much in my career when I was coming up.

"I don't know whether it's where they are from or whatever but they've just been excellent in allowing me to play with no fear whatsoever."

From the outside looking in, it doesn't appear that Munster and Ireland are on the same page.

Getting there should be the aim for Irish rugby, embracing all provinces, all players, from underage to senior.

If Irish rugby continues to fall between two stools, then their chances of success on the world stage will fall through the cracks.

Irish Independent

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