Monday 24 October 2016

I'll keep taking risks and playing without fear, insists Simon Zebo

Published 25/02/2016 | 02:30

Simon Zebo has overcome injury to put himself back into contention for Saturday’s clash against England. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Simon Zebo has overcome injury to put himself back into contention for Saturday’s clash against England. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

It seems that Simon Zebo's wavering status - and please don't lazily dismiss him as a mere 'maverick'- sums up Ireland's uncertainty as a second successive tournament continues to nosedive.

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His inclusion may hint at the steady evolution required to realistically challenge the world's best; but does exclusion point towards the continuance of an endless slugfest with the best of the rest?

Perception is all; the role of the off-load is seemingly the litmus test; against France, Ireland tried one, through Rob Kearney; it didn't come off and his team lost territory and possession. And, ultimately, the match.

Such is the high-wire balancing act of assessing risk and reward.

"There has to be a degree of it being on and a lot of that doesn't just come down to the person off-loading the ball," says Zebo, who may be losing the race to regain his Ireland place, with Keith Earls favoured to replace Dave Kearney.

"It comes down to the support lines and listening to your team-mates so you can trust that he will show up on your inside shoulder or whatever, who is going to hit the ruck. There hopefully is not a fear factor within the players.


"Off-loads and the expansion of the game is something we need to try to get better at because that is how the best teams in the world are playing, and get a lot of success from.

"Because we want to be up there competing with the two or three best sides in the world."

There has been much talk this week of his off-load against Australia two autumns ago, when Nick Phipps scored. "I remember we won!" Jamie Heaslip counters. True; and there were four missed tackles and an errant bouncing ball uncollected before Phipps scored his try too. There is a widely held view that Ireland, and specifically Zebo, are not allowed to off-load, but he remains unmoved.

"Ah no, it was one of those things that is in my DNA," he says, referring to that Australia game. "I try to offload the ball, I try to keep continuity going and I take risks.

"That time Bernard Foley was clever enough to slap the ball back on his side and they scored a try that they probably shouldn't have considering that we had defenders there that were beaten.

"It's not something that I was given out to for, it's one of those things that if Foley doesn't slap it down then Johnny Sexton could go under the sticks, so it was unfortunate enough that they got a seven-pointer off it.

"It's the risk involved and I'm happy to take those risks - it's part of my game. I get excited at those opportunities and those possibilities because if you don't buy a ticket you can't win the lotto, so there's no point playing conservatively and going into your shells.

"That's my opinion. I didn't get effed out of it so I'm happy to continue playing that way. You have to live in the game and think in the game and be on your feet, play what's in front of you.

"If you're thinking about meetings after a game that does no good for any player, it does no good for the team because players are playing with fear and that's a bad environment to play under so we suffer from that.

"Players are willing to try things and hopefully that continues and hopefully we score a few tries this week."

Whether Zebo will be there to score them is a moot point; he once played nine games in a row for Schmidt but, ironically, was dropped when the Six Nations en masse departed from the coaching manual on Super Saturday last spring.

Against Wales, he mixed the sublime, counter-attack particularly, with the sub-standard, poor aerial skills, a glaring missed tackle and a kick to touch on the full.

Had Schmidt another 24 hours to ponder Paris selection, he hinted he may have picked the invalided Zebo and Earls; the pair's evasion was sorely missed in that blood- and rain-soaked, one-dimensional slug-fest.

"I played well," he says, assessing Wales, when Ireland showed glimpses of a different way of playing. "I attacked well, I got over the gain-line a lot, and things like that.

"There was one or two 50/50 high balls I didn't claim but you know there is good competition on that Welsh team when you go up for the high ball, it literally is 50/50 so I dunno, it just depends on what people consider a good and a bad game. In my eyes I was happy with my performance."

If he plays, he believes Ireland will too.

"If it's on you're allowed to have a go and I think some players go with that a lot and some players play to their own strengths and do otherwise, but collectively we're given licence to go out and play.

"I don't think you'd see Mike Ross throwing skip passes or anything but at the same time we're given licence to play heads-up rugby.

"Hopefully we do that this weekend because that's the way it looks like game's going and the best teams are playing the best rugby."

But will he play?

"It is up to the coaches, really."

And would he still love the game if you weren't able to play it the way you want to?

"No," he says, smilingly determined. "No."

Irish Independent

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