Wednesday 22 May 2019

'Half-watching it, half-celebrating it' - Simon Zebo enjoyed low-key birthday while Grand Slam celebrations raged


Simon Zebo during squad training in 2017. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo during squad training in 2017. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

As a measure of how capricious and cruel sport can be, consider the case of Simon Zebo. Over the last few seasons he has been a nailed-on member of the Ireland match-day squad. Given that Joe Schmidt was not the honorary secretary of the Simon Zebo fan club, this reflected well both on his ability as a rugby player and his willingness to conform to what the coach demanded. It's a bit simplistic, but in a nutshell Schmidt wanted Zebo to look more like he was about to break out in a rash than taking time to chill.

So, in 2015 Zebo started four of Ireland's Six Nations games and featured in three World Cup matches. In 2016 he played in another four Championship Tests, three as a starter, rounding off the year with a try in the historic win over New Zealand in Chicago. In 2017 he started all five Six Nations games. And in 2018 he was in Rossini's restaurant on Cork's Princes Street as the Champagne corks were popping in Twickenham.

It's a toss-up which image would be more plaintive: the sight of him playing for Munster on the Friday night in front of three Murrayfield men and a dog; or the Saturday afternoon scene where he was 'celebrating' his 28th birthday with a family lunch. The Grand Slam game was on the telly in the background.

"Half-watching it, half-celebrating it," he says. "It wasn't too busy, thankfully. It was dead.

"It wasn't really a big birthday to be honest, it was just: 'we'll got out for lunch'. But the game was on and all the staff and all the waiters were watching and you'd obviously look in to check on the score. Thankfully my kids were running around, keeping me busy so I didn't get to focus too much on the celebrating or the lifting of the trophy."

If it's an absolute banker in sport that you want the man you get dropped for to have the worst game in history, then it's in the same ballpark to stick needles in your eyes rather than watch celebrations that don't include you. For any competitive, wounded animal, that's torture.

And of course this is self-inflicted. If Zebo hadn't announced his departure for Racing 92 then you'd wonder if Jacob Stockdale's career path would have been such a sprint. Whatever, Zebo is resigned to having played his last in green for the foreseeable. Maybe it's a defence mechanism that stops him from hoping, but our clear understanding is that if it suits Joe Schmidt to include Simon Zebo in the World Cup squad next year then that's what he'll do.

The de facto rule enforced by Schmidt is unwritten with good reason. He can, and will, suit himself when it comes to putting together the best squad for Japan. So if Zebo's form is top quality and the coach wants him then it's a done deal.

"Yeah, hopefully," Zebo says. "Especially the way that rugby's played over there [France]. They've a nice indoor track. Hopefully I'll get some fast ball . . . But no, I'm very excited by the challenge and if I'm playing well, then hopefully there'll be a bit of clamour to get me in! But I don't think that really matters. I've been playing well this season in the big games and it [Ireland] didn't come, so. . ."

He says he has made his peace with it but it sounds like a fragile settlement. In any case there is other stuff for Zebo to sort.

Like Munster picking up their form from that defeat in Edinburgh last weekend - further confirmation they are regularly getting lost on the road - to the required level of the Champions Cup, against Toulon. Which, thankfully, is in Thomond Park where they had to dig out the win last night against Scarlets without Zebo whose hamstring strain should be fine for Saturday.

Toulon may not be the same three-in-a-row vintage that made them untouchable in Europe from 2013-2015, but they are still heavy hitters."They've a lot of big-game experience and some incredible athletes," he says. "I think they're probably a little bit under pressure after their start to the season but they've got a big block of games coming up with Clermont, us, and then two top-of-the-table clashes after that. Unfortunately for us, they're singing at the right time so we know the challenge that's ahead of us.

"In terms of their backs, [Semi] Radradra has been on fire lately. Any time he touches the ball he seems to be making line-breaks. [Malakai] Fekitoa, [Hugo] Bonneval. And Chris Ashton is scoring a freakish number of tries. The big thing with us would be stopping their forward momentum because if they get quick ball and we're not able to come off the line too hard, then we're in trouble because they've got so many threats in their backline. Their squad, is very, very impressive."

Zebo's run-in with Munster is turning into something of a long goodbye, which is not ideal, but how good would it be to see him fly off with some silverware in his carry-on luggage? He is never done talking about the privilege of playing for Munster, but it was always in his head that he would one day feature for someone else as well. As in someone French.

He got the sports gene from his dad, Arthur, who grew up in Martinique. A talented athlete, he was planning on the 800m at the Montreal Olympics but for a parachute jump gone wrong when doing his French military service. The son has always been in touch with his French roots.

"Massive, yeah. It's been a big part of my rugby since I was a kid, since I've been following rugby and playing at a professional level. It's the way I like to play the game - that kind of flair aspect of the game, playing with no fear, play what you see. It's had a big impact, probably off the field as well with my time-keeping. My family tend to be quite bad for that kind of stuff . . . that's my French side.

"My earliest memories are probably Six Nations: [Christophe] Dominici, [Philippe] Bernat-Salles, [Yannick] Jauzion, all these guys, Cedric Heymans, Vincent Clerc. They were all my idols growing up. For about a decade, they were untouchable in Europe - just the way they played, their backline, they were just frightening, the way they ran off each other, their offloads. As a kid, that was the way I wanted to play the game, too."

He has been guided by the principle that it's better to try, and maybe miss the mark, than not to see the target at all. Whether it was on the hurling field or doing schoolwork, his dad would tell him not to get hung up on making mistakes. Just have a go. So while he appreciates the structure that governs much of professional rugby his pulse quickens at the prospect of getting outside it.

"The hard part - and the part that interests me most - is phase play, where you're 20 phases in, how are you going to break down the defence when there's no help? You're not being told what to do then. That's when I have my most fun, trying to break down defences when you're not told what to do by coaches.

"The structure before that is fine because you know: 'this is where the space is' or 'this is how we think we can break them down', but if that doesn't work, you need to be able to break them down without someone holding their hand. That's what interests me the most. It's not that I dislike the structure. It's just the easy part of the game. I view rugby as a game to be played for enjoyment. I enjoy my rugby the most when I play off the cuff."

We're not altogether sure that the unrelenting biff of the Top 14 is the perfect studio for an artist to be displaying his work. It's ironic that Schmidt cited Zebo's form against Racing in Paris in January as the reason for picking Jordan Larmour ahead of him in the Six Nations. It was in response to Zebo going on the record about the struggle of expressing yourself under the Schmidt structure. Doesn't sound like they are besties, does it?

All of which must have run through Zebo's mind when pushing the food around his plate at lunchtime last Saturday. Despite the optics, his Ireland career doesn't have to be over. And his Munster one has a bit to run as well.

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