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Saturday 23 August 2014

Simon Zebo's boot camp may prove blessing in disguise

Hickie believes winger will come back stronger from unwanted rest

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Published 17/10/2013 | 05:00

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Simon Zebo sits on the pitch in Murrayfield after breaking a bone in his foot that sees him wearing a protective boot for the second time this year

WHEN he takes off on one of his mazy runs at speed, Simon Zebo becomes a blur, a whirlwind of activity and unpredictability.

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As the Munster winger reflects on the past year when he begins his 10-week rehabilitation by putting his broken foot up over the next few days, he will see a similar picture. Few players have captured the imagination quite like the Corkman, who filled much into his breakthrough season.

In between the box-sets players use as a crutch to fight the boredom of recovery, he will look at the protective boot on his foot and get a familiar feeling. Last February he was in a similar situation after breaking the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. Now, with a crack in a bone on his left foot, he must be cursing his luck.

Both injuries appeared to be innocuous, coming away from the play and, when the player was seen with crutches in the aftermath, there was some surprise as most at Murrayfield suspected that a hamstring or some other old reliable had failed the 23-year-old.

When news broke on Tuesday night that the injury would keep him out until January, it came as a blow to both his provincial and international coaches ahead of pivotal games.

He was the first of Joe Schmidt's front-liners to fall this season – the New Zealander's choices in the back-three have narrowed ahead of November.

For Rob Penney, there is the prospect of at least three Heineken Cup pool games without his game-changing Lion. Zebo may not have played particularly well in Murrayfield last Saturday, but he has found something from somewhere in those situations before and was the man Munster would have looked to for a spark in those tense closing stages.

He is a loss to both club and country, but it is easy to forget that this is a young man who we have only known for a short time. The winger has made fewer appearances for Munster than Ian Keatley, Tommy O'Donnell and Stephen Archer, and the same number as Duncan Williams, who replaced him in Edinburgh at the weekend, yet he is a household name who must deal with all sorts of additional pressures.

CATAPULTED

The hat-trick against Northampton, the charisma, tries, that flick and his Lions appearances have catapulted the winger into a world of celebrity not normally associated with players with just six caps to their name.

This season was about backing up a breakthrough year, but one of his predecessors on the Ireland wing, Denis Hickie, believes that the break might do him some good come 2014.

"He is going to miss a lot of rugby," the former Leinster man said. "But he has played had a lot of rugby recently, he had a big season last year, really bursting on to the scene for Ireland during the Six Nations, going on the tour with the Irish team and then getting the call from the Lions.

"He hasn't had a huge amount of rest and my view on it is that during the 10 weeks, he might get the rest he needs and maybe didn't get. Of course, he'd prefer to be playing, but I could see him coming back and playing a big Six Nations because he will be fresh and others won't be."

Despite his callow years and the sense that Zebo still has much to do to match the expectations on his shoulders, Hickie believes that the Corkman can handle the pressure.

"People have expectations based on what they've seen and what he is capable of. People's expectations of Simon Zebo are based on what he has done and I think he seems to be comfortable with that level of expectation," he said.

"This is a setback, but I can see him coming back and having a strong second half to the season.

"Munster need all their big players to be playing, especially coming off the back of a defeat you want your internationals to be leading. Any sort of an injury, especially a long-term injury will be disappointing for him and for Munster."

After the disappointment of Saturday's defeat at Murrayfield, Munster need a lift and quickly but former Lions prop Paul Wallace believes that Zebo's absence won't hinder them too much as they go back to the well against Gloucester this weekend.

Whether they'll feel his absence long-term or not, Wallace thinks that the returning Peter O'Mahony and the forwards will get it done.

"I don't think it will matter for Munster this week, because this is going to be old-school Munster," he said.

"This is going to be nasty, angry Munster and all about the physicality up front and they'll create amazing ball. Whether it would be Zebo, who I felt lacked intensity last week, or an Andrew Conway out wide, there will be opportunities for them so I don't think it will be too much of a loss."

Having just come back from the summer break, Zebo now has more time to think and reflect on his career to date.

He has achieved much in the nine months since his other foot lay in a similar state, and Munster and Ireland will be hoping that this long absence will make him even stronger and more willing to bounce back.

They will be looking to keep their part of the bargain by playing their way into contention, and Zebo will be looking to make up for lost time when he returns.

After shining so bright, he'll hope those bones in his feet won't keep him from burning for a lot longer yet.

Irish Independent

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