Wednesday 18 September 2019

'I won't curb my ambition to do special things'

Simon Zebo’s ability to score a try out of nothing brings confidence to Munster according to Rassie Erasmus. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo’s ability to score a try out of nothing brings confidence to Munster according to Rassie Erasmus. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Simon Zebo's smile illuminates the room, even though all the lights are on and the low winter sun spears its rays through the window.

Without uttering a single syllable, there is all at once a communication of the vulnerable but assertive; and a dash of impertinence for good measure.

That's Simon Zebo. Always a lot more happening than you might suspect. Always worth a second look. And a third, too.

Sometimes when the darkness of the sport threatens to overwhelm you, all the diving and the striking and the moral cowardice of those who stay dumb about the diving and the striking, it is good to remember that you can flick a switch and Zebo's smile emits a constant beam.


Rugby needs Zebo. Sport needs Zebos. Life needs them, too. Partner Elvira and little Jacob are lucky: they are greeted with that wondrous smile every morning.

Mercifully, Zebo shares his dazzling sporting talents with the rest of us. In a theatre now routinely populated by bicep-bumping, protein-popping robots devoid of personality, Zebo remains a pyrotechnic wizard of unpredictable, unseating wonder.

And yet his kind have not always been appreciated by some of the benighted bores who populate this land.

Views have been moderated upon both sides, with time, as they must; from him, fatherhood and family, and all those attendant responsibilities, demand they must.

International Rugby Newsletter

Rugby insights and commentary from our renowned journalists like Neil Francis, Will Slattery, Alan Quinlan & Cian Tracey.

However, Zebo has managed to transform the opinions of others without lessening the devotion of his long-term fan base.

"I suppose a couple of years ago my outlook on rugby would have been a bit different and, you know, I had to adapt," he says, flashing that sparkling white-toothed grin.

"I still believe wingers and full-backs are made to score tries and have to score tries and do brilliant things.

"That's what I pride myself on, that's what I want to be able to give to a team.

"But there are other areas like breakdown which I've improved on. Tackle technique would be another.

"All these little areas that you have to keep on improving to be the complete all round player. And there's no player in the world who is the complete player anyway.

"But it's something every player in the world strives for. And I'm on course to becoming the player I want to be."

Zebo has turned over a new leaf but instead of ripping through it, his stylish signature remains permanently embedded upon the page. Like Dylan or Scorsese, when you pay to see Zebo, you are guaranteed artistry.

He will change himself but he will remain himself. After all, he would not be the same person - or player - without the twinkle about the eye and the stardust that fills his boots.

"One of the things that ROG (Ronan O'Gara) always used always say to me was 'never lose the brilliance'," he recalls.

"Never lose that ambition to keep doing special things.

"That's something I never want to lose, I never want to curb that ambition or the risk-taking ability. But at the same time hitting your rucks and things like that is just as important. Combining the two is something I've worked at."

His coaches have appreciated it; Joe Schmidt, it is fair to say, was a distant sceptic at first; Zebo was omitted from an entire Six Nations and then, after playing almost entirely in one, was dropped for the final-day consummation of a title in Edinburgh.

He was distrusted in a World Cup, too, excised precisely at a moment when a squad dwindling in personnel and narrowing in coaching focus bowed out to a Puma side whose wide areas were seemingly packed with a glut of Zebo's distant Latin cousins.


Zebo had to change; but Schmidt did too. Ireland are a different attacking animal, now; they would not have defeated the All Blacks otherwise and both men have benefited wildly from their growing mutual admiration.

"It was probably just a little bit different," Zebo says of his attitude a couple of years back when he drifted in and out of Ireland squads.

"I would have concentrated more solely on impacting on the team on special moments but the little ones are just as important for the collective.

"That's something I've adapted to, and learned and improved upon. And I continue to improve upon. So hopefully when I'm in my prime at 28 or 29 I'll be a different player from the one I am today. There's always room for improvement."

Munster head coach Rassie Erasmus has always been a fan. We have begun to appreciate the South African as far removed from stereotype and, even though his side may play like Ireland in the early days of Schmidt, this coach is willing to allow much more free rein.

"Listen, he can score a try out of nothing," observes Erasmus. "He brings a confidence to the team.

"And sometimes when nothing is on he creates something, which is encouraging because you can't always rely on coaching and systems and plans to score tries.

"Sometimes it is only individual brilliance that scores a try. It is always nice to get a player of his quality back in the team, not just for his play. But he also has a vibe about him."

There is a system but if the system does not allow for risk, if the structure cannot support momentary failure, than what is its use?

"He's always told me 'if it's on, it's on'," concurs Zebo. "Back yourself. We have systems and things but, you know, you'll just be a team with systems if there is no individual brilliance.

"That's what he says. He's right too because we have a great team and collectively we play well.

"But at the same time it's a line-break that is going to score a try, or a high ball taken by Darren Sweetnam.

"It's these things that create scores and separate good from great. We want to be great and he's encouraging us to go along that path.

"If there is a mistake there is a mistake, if there's a missed tackle there's a missed tackle.

"People wouldn't go and buy tickets if people didn't make mistakes and there were no tries. Who would want to see that?

"Stuff will happen and things will go wrong but it's how we react to that and bounce back, how we shake it off and have no fear, how we go out and have the confidence to try something again.

"The main thing is we are enjoying our rugby and that is down to the atmosphere and encouragement we are getting from the coaches. I don't see that changing any time soon."

And so say all of us.

Indo Sport

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport