Zebo can pass stiffest test of dizzying ascent
Published 08/11/2012 | 05:00
And so, once more, it's Zebo time. As was initially flagged last week by assistant coach Mark Tainton, 22-year-old Munster player Simon Zebo is destined to fill the full-back vacancy bequeathed by the injured Rob Kearney.
And once again, this still callow son of a Martinique sprinter will face up to one of the behemoths of world rugby -- his equally surprising summer debut came against the formidable All Blacks.
On that occasion, he was not alone in finding the experience a little too vertiginous; now selection as the last line of defence, where the threat of exposure can often be fatal, represents an even more stirring test of his dizzying ascension.
And, while the pace that courses through the Zebo family genes can often extricate the less experienced from awkward situations, his positioning will need to be spot on against a Springbok side whose thinly concealed game plan will be to launch aerial bombs all day long.
However, the GAA schooling that traces a line through the early development of so many of the country's professional rugby talent will stand him in good stead.
Being a left-footed option, either to clear the ball or hoof it high for kick-chasers, akin to the man he is replacing, Zebo's inclusion is not as surprising when the analysis is parsed still further.
Less certain has been his commitment to defence -- Ulster's Craig Gilroy breezed past him in the Heineken Cup quarter-final last season, leading many to believe that he, not Zebo, should have started on the summer tour.
The fact that the player who once flirted with a modelling career only made his breakthrough last season clearly betrayed certain doubts within the erstwhile Munster management about how his substance could trump his obvious style.
Even during his remarkable rise to prominence last season, timed perfectly to coincide with a huge turnover in playing numbers at Munster, his tendency to carry the ball one-handed and often doggedly hit contact rather than space frustrated then coach Tony McGahan.
Constant exposure to informed coaching and the cost of high-level mistakes have ironed out many of the flaws in his game. Nevertheless, Saturday represents another gargantuan leap in class for Zebo.
His father, Arthur, hails from Martinique, an island in the French Caribbean and was on course to compete in the 800m in the 1976 Montreal Olympics for France after he moved to Paris to complete national service.
Unfortunately, he broke his leg. As one door closed, another opened; his arrival in Ireland coincided with marriage to Cork-born Lynda.
Their daughter, Jessika, also inherited the sprint genes and is viewed as a potential Olympian. A prominent figure in Leevale AC, she ran for Ireland in the European Indoor relays three years ago.
Zebo attended Beaumont National School -- he was a year behind Sunderland's combative Irish international midfielder David Meyler -- and both Cork heavyweight secondary schools, CBC and PBC, were interested in securing the duo's presence for their ranks.
Their career paths diverged, though. Zebo retained some faith in his fondness for Gaelic games. He togged out for St Michael's in a Féile na nÓg final -- he also played an exhibition match on the undercard of the 2002 Munster SFC final between Cork and Kerry -- while he hurled minor for Blackrock.
At PBC, though, rugby eventually consumed him and he won the Munster Schools Senior Cup in his final year.
After joining the Munster sub-Academy and utilising the often neglected club scene as a breeding ground, the lifelong Cork Con man made his first competitive start for Munster in the Celtic League against Connacht three seasons ago.
After just one year in the full Academy, and just six starts, he 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 Gardens' fortress -- more than repaid the faith invested in him.
The bar is being raised all the time, but Zebo is clearly being backed to clear this latest hurdle in his development. It is not a call that will necessarily break either player or coach.
But it could make the player and reward those punters who have already placed bets on him becoming a Lions bolter later this term.