Friday 15 December 2017

In-demand but flying winger will stay true to his instincts

Cork flyer vows not to change his heads-up approach - no matter who he's playing for

Simon Zebo, 25, is just nine appearances short of a century of Munster caps (Sportsfile)
Simon Zebo, 25, is just nine appearances short of a century of Munster caps (Sportsfile)

Daragh Small

Simon Zebo continues to operate in his own bubble as contract talk and speculation have become the ongoing context regarding his name.

Every time he is mentioned in print or on the airwaves, chat of a possible switch to France soon follows but the Munster winger maintains that he is entirely focused on the task at hand.

The 2015-'16 season has not been kind to him so far. It started with a tough World Cup where he did not get to show his class to its full extent. Then, on his return to Cork, Munster's results gradually went downhill.

The victories over Ulster, Edinburgh and Treviso were soon forgotten when Dragons and Leicester trumped them recently - along with the defeat at home to Connacht, where Zebo did not feature.

But the 25-year-old Corkonian who is now just nine appearances shy of a century of caps, and has scored 40 tries for Munster, knows they can flick the switch this weekend and turn their campaign around.

"It's always tough to perform in every single game of the season. But I think the boys know exactly what we need to do this weekend, and no better fixture to turn it around.

"It will be a very difficult place to go to, Leicester have a great fan-base as well, and they would be similar enough to Munster. Welford Road will be quite hostile, we know how tough the challenge is.

"But hopefully we can get some momentum and finish this double-header with a win."

Zebo is the archetypal heads-up rugby player, and arguably it is the reason he has only featured 12 times for Ireland. But what comes naturally to him is what has earned him three appearances on tour with the British & Irish Lions too.

Considering he plays his rugby against Europe's elite on a weekly basis, it makes it all the more difficult to master the best of both worlds. However, the innate sense of practice makes perfect and then applying that on the pitch is what gave Zebo that X-factor.

To suppress the mercurial talent would be wrong, and at this time of the season tactics and weather conditions are not conducive to the expansive style of rugby he thrives on.


The former PBC student relishes the thought of a dry ball on a firm pitch in the middle of spring, with an open field ahead of him. But he has adapt to be more of a team player and it means he is always learning more and more about himself.

"The opposition and weather would dictate how I play. We haven't been blessed with too many dry balls for myself to be able to do what I am blessed with. Hopefully now we get a bit more free rein, and soon and I will able to impact the game more, like I know I can.

"It's all about adapting and just doing whatever we need to win. Whether that's kick-chase, or some of the other aspects of the game that would have to happen with the wet ball. We have to adapt and do those things. They are the little margins that can win or lose you games.

"But I have always played the same way, and it's how I enjoy playing the game and it's what I am best at and most dangerous at, when I am given the opportunity to do that. It has always been that case with me playing the way I do. It has got me so far in my career, so I don't see any reason to change.

"It seems that the skills and the natural ability part of the game, are coming into it more and more these days. You look all the winning teams they always seem to have that expansive mindset too.

"Hopefully that continues to grow and I will continue to bring positivity to whichever team I play for."

Like his fellow Munster flyer Keith Earls, versatility has often acted against Zebo when it came to team selection. And the fact he can play at full-back and on the wing has cost him a starting spot in the past.

But gradually with experience and deadly finishing - 47 tries for province, country and the Lions - Zebo has made himself an indispensable member of the Munster set-up and now a regular in Joe Schmidt's plans.

Whether it might take him to pastures new in 2016, for the time being on the field at least, is beside the point. Zebo is looking at new ways to improve his own game by repetition of the basics.

His basics might not be so simple to other everyday rugby professionals, but that is what makes him unique. After a World Cup that has shown skill beats physicality in the game, in the northern hemisphere, Zebo's talents are now even more sought-after.

"Since I got back from the World Cup I have just done training as I always have. That's just trying to be true in my skill-set confidently, and just become the best I can be.

"It's always the same, I always go out and train to improve. I wouldn't focus or hone in on one specific area because I think it's too broad. Rugby requires so many different skills. So I just try and go out and try and perfect every single one.

"I wouldn't consider myself to be an out-and-out winger, or an out-and-out full-back. I just go out and I just play as if I don't have a number on my back. I just show up everywhere.

"Not necessarily do my own thing, but I know when I am roaming around the pitch and looking for weaknesses that's when I am at my best. I just try and play the way I always play."

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