Tuesday 26 September 2017

'The place will be packed. It will be mayhem' - There will be divided loyalties in the Zebo household this weekend

Simon Zebo of Ireland during squad training at Carton House in Maynooth
Simon Zebo of Ireland during squad training at Carton House in Maynooth
'As an impressionable child growing up in Cork, and one upon whom even more profound impressions were made by a host of French relatives, Zebo would often spring into his back garden on a spring day, his heart moved by those magnificent men with upturned collars and cockerels upon their breasts.' Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

You can just picture Simon Zebo in a blue jersey, non?

After all, however fleetingly, he may have done so himself.

Few Irishmen mirror the joie de vivre that once oozed from the French national side when they were in their glorious pomp, before ennui and money dulled their senses and their soul.

As an impressionable child growing up in Cork, and one upon whom even more profound impressions were made by a host of French relatives, Zebo would often spring into his back garden on a spring day, his heart moved by those magnificent men with upturned collars and cockerels upon their breasts.

In 2002, the 12-year-old Zebo was still more of a sprinter and a GAA kid; it was a while yet before he would become a true convert to the oval ball game.

But it had already stolen his heart. And he would have cheered on France.

"Ah lads yeah," he muses in memory of a time when France were capable, as they did that year, of sweeping all before them in the northern hemisphere.

"When I was a kid for sure. Heymans, Clerc, Jauzion.

"Watching all these guys running with the ball used to inspire me to want to do the same thing. It was the same with Ireland but in my house it was 50-50."

Zebo grew up in Cork, immersed in GAA and Irish culture; his father, Arthur, born in Martinique but based in France since 1976, met Cork woman Lynda in Paris before relocating to Ireland to raise their family.

"I think there might be some family coming over this weekend alright," he smiles. "The place will be packed. It will be mayhem."

Only this time Zebo wants there to be only one winner.

But then this story might have had a different narrative, too.

Never mind imagining what Zebo might have looked like in blue, the reality may have been closer than one thinks.

After all, this is the player who, when not deemed fit enough to get into the Munster Academy, almost brought his wildly vacillating teenage hormones to what he may have believed to be his "spiritual" homeland.

We should be thankful that he decided against such rashness. He stuck at it, eventually made it into the Academy after missing out on much of his U-19 age grade rugby and the rest is, well, continued history in the breathless making.

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Simon Zebo, Ireland, is tackled by Dan Biggar, Wales. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Wales v Ireland, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Four years ago he made his stunning Championship debut, in Cardiff, an exotic flick of the heel catapulting him into the consciousness of every man, woman and child in the land.

This too may have been a tale that may have remained untold; in the weeks before, he was contemplating a future that may not have included Ireland or Munster as interest from Toulouse, and their majestic coach, Guy Noves, pricked his agent's ears.

Zebo didn't necessarily close his.

"My agent would have met him but I never personally got the opportunity to sit down with Guy myself," he says. "It panned out the way it did and I am more than happy to have stayed with Munster."

Zebo was always a fan of Noves and his Toulouse sides; he is enthused by the early efforts of the one-time enfant terrible, now the grand old man, in attempting to resurrect the sadly monochrome national side.

"Yeah, it's been good to watch, it's exciting. I'd be a big fan of Guy. I love the way he tries to play the game.

"During the successful days of Toulouse, he was at the forefront of everything that went well with them. I love the way they are trying to play the game.

"We have to focus on how we attack ourselves and how we find space. Hopefully, it will be a dry day and a good game. But from what I have seen they are playing a lot better than they have been in previous years."

Zebo is still only 26; without demeaning ourselves with needless tittle-tattle, he still envisions a potential career there, at some stage, perhaps when all his professional goals here are fulfilled.

"Ah yeah, at some stage I will, definitely," says the man who, mercifully, remains capable of saying what he wants, rather than what others think he should.

"Yeah, it's going to happen but it's just a matter of when. It could be Pro D2 or whatever.

"I still have a lot of family in France, I love the lifestyle over there and playing rugby over there would be something that at some point of my life, I would like to experience.

"There are not many jobs where you can change your career and go to another country.

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Munster’s Simon Zebo gets away from Marc Andreu of Castres at Thomond Park. Photo: Sportsfile

"Before all that, I'm very happy with Munster and Ireland and we've huge challenges ahead."

Aside from the often dubious quality of the French club fare, the bruising experiences of Jonathan Sexton and Ian Madigan may have hardened the sense of grass not being greener and all that.

But you sense Zebo's lighter personality would not invite as much pressure as his two compatriots.

"Ah, no, I think each player to their own you know? Mads and Johnny would be two fellas who would be extremely competitive, as would I.

"But we would be three different individuals so I think going over there you would need a different mindset or something like that.

"Maybe I wouldn't put as much pressure on myself, I'd be quite laid-back as a fella and open to anything. It would be different for each individual.

"It probably depends on which club you go to I suppose. You could be lucky or unlucky with the style of rugby you get. It's a different lifestyle, a different experience.

"Rugby is such a short career and I love Munster so much but at the same time, at some stage, eventually. I could be 40 before I decide to go, you never know!"

Whatever about a future in France or a past dreaming of them, tomorrow he wants to beat them. And, perhaps, score a try, too.

Despite a delicious assist for CJ Stander in Rome, that Cardiff try remains his only five-pointer halfway through his fifth campaign (albeit Joe Schmidt excluded him entirely in 2014).

He has scored seven other tries but curiously drawn a Championship blank since that seminal February day in Cardiff.

"I was only made aware of that last week. I probably get more games in the Autumn Series, I dunno. I try and have more of an impact on play here as opposed to when I'm in Munster.

"The play would more naturally come to me, 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 assists, rather than dotting down tries. If you get the opportunity to make a scoring pass, it's just the same buzz. It's just a tiny bit of luck. You're going to make me insecure about it now..."

Perish the thought.

"I dunno if it's the nature of the games, but I'll try and get one and show you." You wouldn't bet against him.

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