Friday 19 January 2018

Zebo still defying expectations

New arrival Simon Zebo aims to silence any doubters by forcing his way into Gatland’s plans for Wallabies

Conor George

Conor George

THE arrival of the precocious Simon Zebo on the international scene for Ireland and now the Lions is testament to a talent that has matured in a very short space of time.

THE arrival of the precocious Simon Zebo on the international scene for Ireland and now the Lions is testament to a talent that has matured in a very short space of time.

Alan Gaffney, the former Leinster, Munster and Ireland coach, alluded to a difficult start to Zebo's professional career this week – "He was a player who had a lot of ability but he was a bit scattered at the time and anything could have happened" – before acknowledging how far the Ireland international has travelled since those early days.

"It definitely looks like he's got his act together," said Gaffney.

His future at the highest level seemed preordained from the moment he was introduced to the Cork Constitution dressing-room by Charlie Murphy, a son of the well-known former international and rugby administrator Noel Murphy (Lions tours 1959 and 1966), and a brother of another former international, Kenny.

Zebo is the son of a former French international athlete, Arthur, and his athletic prowess was nurtured in his underage years by the Leevale club, the biggest and most successful athletics institution in Munster. All the coaches at Cork Con had to do was to develop his footballing skills.

His progression and maturation was not without incident, which is the period Gaffney alluded to, but for the past number of seasons he has been one of Ireland's most explosive talents and he has a habit of proving his critics wrong.

He has all the necessary skills; the speed, the footwork, the eye for the tryline, the right attitude and, crucially, the willingness and capability to learn.

Perhaps it is his flamboyant nature, but Zebo has always had the capacity to divide opinion. Those who were in praise of him invariably offered their encouragement and acknowledgement but always with a caveat.

During his teenage years, he was described as a great AIL player but not "a great professional one". Then it was "a good Celtic League player" but "not up to Heineken Cup standard". When he moved on further, he was described as "a good Heineken Cup player" but not one of "international standard".

Even now that he is an international player, there are those whose endorsement of his talent is not without an equivocation – they would suggest that his defence is not up to the standard expected of a truly excellent wing.

The truth is that those who would qualify their admiration would be unable to identify a particular game, for Munster or Ireland, where he was found wanting in his defensive duties. During the November internationals, he emphasised his versatility when playing at full-back, and did so very impressively.

Every time Zebo has stepped up a level, he has produced. And even though he's a late addition to the Lions squad, he is being afforded an introduction to the next level of competitive football against Michael Cheika's Super 15 side NSW Waratahs tomorrow.

He has been challenged by Warren Gatland to force his way into his plans for the Test series and Zebo has just the personality to take the coach at his word and do exactly what's asked of him. Don't be surprised if the Ireland international is pencilled in to face the Wallabies after tomorrow's outing.

It has been suggested that Gatland has finally tipped his hat with the selection of numbers one to 10 for tomorrow week's game. For certain, the half-back pairing in the first Test will be Mike Phillips and Ireland's playmaker Jonathan Sexton.

To that end, it was somewhat of a relief to see Sexton put in a full kicking session while the Lions forwards went through their paces in the sunshine at the North Sydney Oval ground yesterday.

Sexton was joined by his Leinster and Ireland team-mate Rob Kearney, who will finally make his tour debut tomorrow, albeit off the bench, while Jamie Heaslip is set for another stint at the coalface and is flanked by Tom Croft (blindside) and tour captain Sam Warburton.

Whether or not Gatland is of a mind to leave his captain out of the starting line-up for the first Test is the great imponderable. On form, Warburton should not be in the side while Sean O'Brien and Jason Tipuric should. When he unveiled the squad in London on April 30, Gatland did say that, at that stage, Warburton would be his starting openside flanker.

The captain missed the opening two games of the tour and, in his absence, Tipuric and O'Brien have both put in far more impressive shifts in the No 7 shirt than Warburton did when he played against the Queensland Reds. The coach did, however, insist that he would select on form, which should suggest Warburton will find himself out of the starting Test team.

"The back-row is an area where we're free of injuries and there is strong competition there, which is what you want," said Gatland. "I have been 100pc consistent about what I've been saying from day one. It's about picking the best players. Sam's well aware of that. He had a good start against the Reds last week and this is another big game for him.

"Everyone is firing, and if you look at the talent we have there, Sean O'Brien's carrying from six and we know he can play seven, what talent and ability Tom Croft brings to the back-row for example, the defence and depth Dan Lydiate brings.

"The two No 8s bring different skills to the table. It's going to be a long night making that selection decision. But let's allow the game to unfold, rather than trying to predict and create some controversy about leaving one or two players out of the team."

Jamie Roberts again starts at inside centre (12) and he will be looking for a more dynamic performance than he managed against Combined Country on Tuesday. He is partnered by Jonathan Davies.

If Brian O'Driscoll is fit for the first Test, as Gatland suggested he will be, then it is probable he and Roberts will be in the centre with either (or both) Davies or Manu Tuilagi deputising from the bench.

It is still very much a guessing game when it comes to a possible Test selection, even after yesterday's team announcement where the only concession from Gatland was the probability of O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell being two of a select few whose places are beyond doubt.

Gatland insisted that he won't sit down with his coaching team to select the side until after Tuesday's game against the Brumbies but proximity of that fixture to the first Test suggests tomorrow's game is the one those with Test team ambitions need to make an impression in.

For a personality arriving late to the party, through no fault of his own, and blessed with such talent, ambition and confidence, that is likely to be all the encouragement Zebo needs to force his way into those selection discussions.

Irish Independent

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