Monday 23 September 2019

European glory still driving Zebo

Reds’ star insists Castres errors will be rectified

Simon Zebo believes Munster’s opening draw against Castres was a fair reflection of the game. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo believes Munster’s opening draw against Castres was a fair reflection of the game. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

If Simon Zebo were minded to walk into a betting shop, it wouldn't be a surprise if everyone's horse romped past the winning post.

His smile is naturally addictive, capable of transforming any downbeat mood.

To have him amidst their number, Munster are inured against wallowing in the uncertainty of their seemingly unsettling coaching transition, never mind the intense emotion of a week when they must deal with the anniversary of Anthony Foley's tragic passing.

Whatever the cloud, his glinting grin always radiates positivity; whatever the perceived precarious individual or collective state, his conviction carries him through.

And so he can talk about Munster's relatively unknown new coach or his as yet undecided contract with the breezy assuredness of one whose only immediate concern is attending the latest Hermitage Green gig.

Ask him if he is secretly eyeing his club's European try-scoring record - poignantly, still held by Foley, with 23, with Zebo now on 20 after his clinical Castres score last weekend - his eyes alight with mischief.

"I'll get that in 40 minutes this weekend," he smiles.

Personal records tickle him but the desire to win something with Munster represents a more urgent itch. He watched from the terraces when Munster ruled Europe; he wants to be on the field when they do so again.

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A draw last weekend has handicapped them somewhat; a big statement is required when Ronan O'Gara and his Dan Carter-inspired side pitch up on their field of dreams tomorrow.

"It's a void that needs to be filled, that's the main drive and ambition in this club, to get that golden nugget," he agrees.

"It's the European trophy that we're trying to get so hard, a lot of the guys who were in the stand that day are in their prime now and are leaders in this team. We're the ones who can take it home.

"A win this Saturday would definitely go a long way in getting us some momentum. We were probably lucky enough to come away with the two points against Castres but it was a tough place to go in their first game of the season in Europe, at home.

"They're a proud club. Looking back on it, we probably had chances to win it but a draw is probably a fair reflection."

It could have been much worse as Zebo, adjudged to have deliberately knocked on as Castres essayed a short-side overlap, could easily have followed team-mate Conor Murray to the bin during a calamitous opening quarter when Castres not only scored one try but, conceivably, could have been awarded two penalty tries by a more stringent officiating team.

"I thought I was gone," he concedes. "It's a tough one, I was in two minds thinking I could pluck it and go the length or just wrap... it was probably in between.

"It was a close call, either way we probably had cover defenders coming but you never know. I don't know if Conor being gone helped me!

"I'm just glad I didn't go. I was pretty annoyed at myself. I don't give away penalties very often, but it's just not a good feeling even when you're against the cosh.

"I'll keep my penalty count as low as possible, hopefully we won't chat about that again. I don't know, everybody's very eager to make the big play or get the big turnover, make the big hit.

"We're probably inching a bit offside or holding on to the player on the deck a little too long for the ref.

"It's something we can probably rectify, some of them have been plain stupid so that's definitely in our own control.

"It wasn't a major issue last year, it's not going to be one this year. Two games where we underperformed isn't a big issue.

"We'll go out and do our best to correct it this week and leave the referee in no doubt that we're all angels."

If they need any heavenly guidance, they will know where to find it. Zebo was moved to tears this time last year when the minute's silence was held for Foley; a year on, the feelings remain raw.

"I watched the documentary in the week," he confides.

"Some parts of Paul O'Connell's interview entertained me, one or two little stories were quite funny and made you reflect on some of the good memories you had with him.

"It was pretty emotional stuff."

Home will inspire him, so much that you wonder how could he ever contemplate leaving? "It could be anything, it could be a knock-on or a forward pass - they scream as loud as if it was an end-to-end seven-pointer," he says admiringly of the faithful.

"So it's probably daunting for opposition to come and play. It's incredible for us, they're the 16th man and there's no other words to describe it.

"You have to be out in the middle of the pitch to really know what it's like.

"It's so unique, there's a different air about the place when it comes to European rugby."

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