Saturday 21 October 2017

Hurling and football has always made me more Irish than French – Simon Zebo

Winger once had a foot in two camps but knows what side he's on this week

Simon Zebo has always admired French flair, as he showed with his famous flick against Wales in 2013. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Simon Zebo has always admired French flair, as he showed with his famous flick against Wales in 2013. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ireland versus France was always a bit different chez Zebo when future Ireland winger Simon was growing up.

The French connection ran deep in their corner of Blackrock in Cork, and when the two tribes went to war the house was split down the middle.

One one side, Arthur would cheer for Les Bleus and on the other Lynda and her family would roar on Ireland. Simon would watch and wait to see who was winning.

"It was split 50-50 definitely," he recalled with his trademark wide smile yesterday. "Dad would cheer France on, probably to get a rise out of my grandad most of the time. He'd have the beret on and the blue jersey all the time.

"Depending on who was winning I would jump on the winning side. The older I got the more I wanted to represent my country, and that's Ireland.

"This week is a lot different, it is my first time playing France at senior level and it will be special day for my family. My da will be wearing his French jersey and the rest of my family will be in green.

"Nah, it will be unbelievable, all my French family are coming over for the game and it will be a great occasion."

Zebo has aunts, uncles and cousins in Paris and Toulouse and speaks French himself.

Denied

His father hails from Martinique, an 'overseas region' of France, and was denied a chance at wearing a blue vest at the 1976 Montreal Olympics by an injury.

Zebo's mother hails from Cork and worked for Brittany Ferries - the couple met in Paris before moving to Ireland, where a love of football, hurling and, ultimately, rugby drove their son on to sporting heights.

It also helped him sort out his loyalties after his early jersey-hopping.

"I was born here," he explained. "Hurling and football has always made me a little more Irish than French. I have always felt Irish and have always wanted to play for Ireland."

Even if he grew up dreaming of one day pulling on a green jersey, the French still held sway over the style in which Zebo played the game.

His influences included the highlights-wearing, fleet-footed Stade Francais winger Christophe Dominici and it was the French, rather than the Irish, who he replicated when taking on the game at Pres, Cork.

"Definitely. Dominici, these guys, I used to love watching them play, watching all the French games. Ireland and France were my two favourite teams," he said.

"It's going to be a strange one but exciting game this weekend.

"French wingers, they are like outside centres with a lot of pace. They have got really good skill-sets and they can offload and put in little grubber kicks with ease.

"They just look to continue to play all the time. You think they are running down a blind alley and they are not, the ball is slipped in around the back door into someone else and the game is continued. They being a lot of flair and offloading ability and deadly finishing, all in one. They are a dangerous combination.

"I'm probably a little different to the stereotypical (Irish) winger. I don't know how to put it. I suppose I have French blood in me and I have always admired the way the way they play.

"I'm half-French so it's a little difficult to answer, but yeah the way I describe the French wingers is the way I try to play my rugby."

At one point, that individual streak appeared to be keeping Zebo in the international wilderness. That and an unfortunately timed foot injury that meant he missed out for most Joe Schmidt's first season in charge.

Even when he did make it on to the tour of Argentina, the sense persisted that the former school-teacher didn't quite fancy the Munster winger, but Schmidt has now started the Corkman in six successive Tests and, despite the return to fitness of Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls, he is unlikely to change course this weekend.

Zebo has had to learn the Ireland coach's ways, and his defensive discipline was impressive in November, while last Saturday he added something different to an attack that struggled to break down the Italians.

Still, there have been moments of doubt. When Bernard Foley read his intentions and picked off his off-load to Johnny Sexton to set up Nick Phipps' game-changing try in the Australia game, minds turned to the coaching booth, where Schmidt stood in judgment, but the coach is famed for backing players when they take the right option even if it doesn't come off.

Zebo is independently minded and insists that, if presented with the same scenario, he'd do it all again. When it's on, it's on.

"I was thinking 'thank God there's not another game cos I'll be dropped!'," he joked. "No, no. I don't think of those things at all. You don't have time to think like that on the pitch. You have to go on your instincts.

"That's what I did. I like offloading the ball and creating opportunities for other players as well. I think I'm quite good at it except it just didn't work out on that one occasion and that's sport.

"It was on because there was a dog-leg in the defence. I spotted Foley come up out of the line and then there was space for Johnny, but he is a very clever player.

"A lot of other players would have just stayed and looked at Johnny but, in fairness to him, he turned straight away and looked to slap it back. Not many players would have that quick thinking. It was good defence, I suppose, but I continue to try these things if I see the opportunities."

While Schmidt asks his wingers for plenty of perspiration to go with their inspiration, he will have been thankful for Zebo's interventions last weekend.

Turgid

After a turgid opening half, the champions were struggling to create openings in the Italian defence until the Corkman began coming in off his wing and trying things and the holes began to appear.

He passed 10 times in 16 possessions, bringing others into play and, in the post-O'Driscoll era, his creative touches were key.

"It's just helping out the team-mates when it's on to go wide," he said. "If it's not coming out for any other reason and I feel I can help and spread it a little bit, I'll definitely go and do that.

"I get bored easily when I'm just standing out on the wing all day. That's not how I like to play rugby. I like to get my hands on the ball as much as possible and help out any way I can. I ended up taking a few forward carries as well in trying to be occupied but the ball started to come out wider.

"They (Italy) are a tough team, they are at home in the first game, and they are going to take time to wear down and after about 60 minutes, we were able to spread it a little bit and get a few touches and, yeah, it was good."

Against a monstrous French backline, Ireland will need a mixture of Zebo's new-found defensive attributes and his ability to inspire in equal measures.

Who better to take down Les Bleus than a man who grew up copying the men who made them so exciting.

Irish Independent

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