Saturday 27 December 2014

Wing wizard Zebo ready to shoot for stars

Ireland’s newest sensation has the potential to become global superstar

Published 01/02/2013 | 05:00

The Six Nations will offer Simon Zebo the chance to announce himself to a larger audience than will have seen him peform heroics for Munster

Not since Simon Geoghegan, it seems, has there been a more fresh-faced and exuberantly swash-buckling talent in green.

Not since Denis Hickie has there been a speedster with propeller jets in his golden-coloured boots.

Not since Brian O'Driscoll has a showboating signal of try-scoring delirium attracted such comment from Irish rugby fans.

Quite simply, Simon Zebo, Irish rugby's newest sensation, has all the potential to become a global superstar, with this Six Nations championship offering the perfect platform to demonstrate his stunning array of gifts.

However, there is every chance that Zebo, the son of a French citizen, could have been lost to the game here at any time during his stunning rise to prominence.

Nevertheless, while his team-mates are attracted to him like moths to a halogen light and rugby fans await with bated breath his next stunning move, the man himself will simply take it all in his stride.

Nothing, it seems, can faze him.

"I don't really think about it, to be honest," he says about the impending fame that seems to be hurtling down the track. "All I'm thinking about is going out and performing against Wales. Any of those things I wouldn't take much notice of.

Focus

"I literally go out and focus on performing week in, week out. If you stop concentrating on that and thinking about things outside of that then those performances won't come, they won't be there. Just one game at a time for me."

It is an attitude fostered since childhood, framed by the gentle persuasion of an easy-going father from the Caribbean and the humility forged on the rugby playing fields of his native Cork.

And yet it took a twist of fate to ensure that, on this opening Six Nations weekend, Zebo would be wearing the green of Ireland as opposed to the blue of France.

His father, Arthur, hails from Martinique, an island in the French Caribbean. Slated to represent France, to where he moved on account of national service, in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, he unluckily broke a leg and one dream was crushed.

Another invited itself when he met his wife, Cork-born Lynda, who then worked with Brittany Ferries, in Paris before the pair decided to move back to her native country.

Zebo attended Beaumont National School – also the alma mater of Irish international midfielder David Meyler – and both of Cork's top rugby-playing secondary schools, CBC and Declan Kidney's PBC, were interested in securing the duo's presence for their ranks.

Zebo dabbled in his fondness for Gaelic games. He featured for St Michael's in a Feile na nOg final – and he also played an exhibition match on the undercard of the 2002 Munster SFC final between Cork and Tipperary.

He also hurled minor for Blackrock. Like Darren Sweetnam, now part of Mike Ruddock's Ireland U-20 Six Nations outfit, he is a rugby refugee from the round-ball code.

At PBC, though, rugby eventually consumed him and he won the Munster Schools Senior Cup in his final year.

Fate would decree that Zebo would learn his sporting trade in this country; otherwise, who knows, he might well be starring in the Top 14.

Recently coveted by Toulouse before signing a three-year deal with Munster, the fluent French speaker nearly left for France in his late teens too. The lure has always been resisted.

After he left school, he played his club rugby with Cork Constitution, to whom he faithfully records a heavy debt, but he has confided that he was too unfit to gain entry into the Munster Academy.

"I've family over there in Paris and down south in Toulouse," he admits. "But I was only a young fella then. I was 16, 17 and all you're thinking is Senior Cup and how far you can go in rugby. I suppose I had a a few jokes with the likes of Peter O'Mahony that if it didn't work out we'd be on the next plane over together. Thankfully that didn't happen."

Still, his career trajectory was not always as precipitous as it may have seemed and the fledgling steps upon his professional path were hobbled by fraying uncertainty.

"I was out of shape, I picked up a few injuries and I wasn't able to train for a good couple of months," he revealed this week.

"I did some damage to my foot and put on a bit of weight.

"It just took me an extra season. I missed out on Ireland U-19s because of it and the following season the U-20s came around and I played well and got into the Academy that way."

In more ways than one, he has kicked on from that moment to this.

His sister, Jessika, also possesses the hereditary running genes; once touted as a a potential Olympian herself, she remains a prominent figure in Leevale AC, for whom she represented Ireland in the European Indoor relays three years ago.

After just one year in the full Academy, and just six starts, Zebo secured a full contract at the start of last season.

Finishing it as the club's leading scorer – highlighted by a magnificent hat-trick in the Heineken Cup destruction of Northampton in their Franklin's Gardens fortress – more than repaid the faith invested in him.

Deemed lucky by some to earn a starting berth on Ireland's summer tour ahead of Craig Gilroy, whose try for Ulster exposed his suspect defence in the stunning Heineken Cup ambush in Limerick last season, the duo now stand poised to light the blue touchpaper for a potentially dazzling backline.

Once again, it's Zebo time.

Irish Independent

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