Monday 16 September 2019

Simon Zebo on transfer rumours: 'It does wreck your head - I'm linked with everybody'

Simon Zebo in training for Munster at the University of Limerick this week
Simon Zebo in training for Munster at the University of Limerick this week

Ruaidhri O'Cconnor

Anthony Foley just happens to arrive into the lobby of the Castletroy Hotel as Simon Zebo is settling into a seat to begin his interview.

"Bonjour! Je suis Simon, j'aime Pau, j'aime Stade Francais" booms Foley with a broad smile. Zebo laughs as his coach marches on down the corridor, shrugs and continues. All in the game.

The Munster winger is the centre of attention right now. For better or worse, his future is the subject of discussion in the French rugby media and, given the nature of the modern world, word is filtering back home rather instantaneously.

His agent has refused to deny reports linking him with Stade Francais, while he was reported to have held discussions with Simon Mannix, his former backs coach turned directeur sportif at Pau, last week.

At 25, Zebo is hot property. A current international who speaks French and scores tries on a regular basis, he sprinkles stardust and charisma and looks tailor-made for the Top 14 where heads-up rugby is a way of life.

Munster will be desperate to keep him. Foley held discussions about his retention with David Nucifora back in August and you can be sure that he reminded him of the priorities of keeping Zebo, Conor Murray, CJ Stander and Tommy O'Donnell when the IRFU's performance director visited this week.

Having started four of the five games in last year's Six Nations and played in three of Ireland's pool games, Zebo is now an established - if not yet fully trusted - member of Joe Schmidt's squad. Given his importance to Munster and involvement with Ireland, he will hope that a national contract is on the table.

If not, he has options and while he wasn't going to get into any intricate details when we met this week he is clearly open-minded.

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"It's just something that comes with the territory, to be honest, because I'm at contract negotiation time and it's going to be an interesting couple of weeks," he shrugs.

"Nothing's moving too quickly at the moment, so people will be bored of seeing my name in the paper, linked with everybody and anybody but it's early enough days. Until we get some more information, I'll be able to make decisions then. I just try and focus on my rugby and let my agent deal with that.

"I'll have to make a decision with everything on the table and see what's best for me and my family.

"There will obviously be hard decisions, but it's part and parcel of it and we'll have to wait and see. I'm very open-minded, but hopefully everything happens that needs to happen and we should be alright."

Last year, before he retired, Gordon D'Arcy spoke brilliantly about the inner turmoil that contract negotiation time can inflict on players as they weigh up their options and wait for offers.


"It does wreck your head for six-and-a-half days of the week, but that morning you wake up you just go, 'I need to play well to argue my case'," the former centre explains. "You can say all you want in the press, you can say all you want behind closed doors but you are judged on your games. So for that half a day you have to, and if you don't you won't get it and if you do you might get it."

Zebo, however, says he doesn't get too bogged down in the minutiae of it all, preferring to perform on the pitch and let his representatives take care of business.

"I don't mind it too much, I don't particularly mind stuff in the media or stuff like that. I really wouldn't get too bogged down or read too much, look at much online so it wouldn't weigh on me like it would other players," he adds. "In that regard, I'm happy to be playing, I'm excited to be playing and I just want to help my team."

This week, he's been robbed of that chance as a result of the continuing fallout from the terror attacks on Paris last Friday night.

Stade Francais postponed Sunday's meeting with Munster after consulting with police, meaning a rare week off and perhaps it was no surprise to see Nucifora drop down to Cork to avail of the opportunity of a pressure-free environment.

As he spoke, the match was still going ahead. Zebo has connections to Paris that go beyond sport and was keen for life to go on as much as possible.

"Outside of rugby, we know everything that's been going on is hard to deal with, it's hard for everybody - especially Stade Francais," he says. "I've family in Paris. They wouldn't live too close to where the attacks where but, having said that, it's not exactly a great thing to be watching on TV.

"It's horrible, it's just a very sad thing that's hard to comprehend. We were straight on to our family in Paris to make sure they were OK and consoling with everyone and that was important to do.

"You can't dwell on it too long, you can't let the attackers get what they want and that's total chaos and all of that. The faster we get on with day-to-day life, the better."

Aside from the potential for a little contract discussion, the weekend off will give players a rare moment's breathing space to reflect.

Despite being dropped from the match-day 23 by Joe Schmidt for the last two World Cup games against France and Argentina, Zebo speaks positively about his experience in the tournament in which he lit up Wembley in round two and did a good job covering for Rob Kearney against Italy in the third pool game.

He clearly feels he couldn't have done much more to merit inclusion, but the coach restored the elder Kearney brother to full-back for the pivotal games, while Dave Kearney and Tommy Bowe got the nod on the wings.

"It's just the coach's decision," he says. "That's what it comes down to, I was very happy with what I'd done in the games before that. Some of the things I was doing on the rugby pitch at the time were quite good, so I was quite happy with that.

"It just comes down to selection, but we're a 31-man squad and we had to go over and prepare each other as best we could so the best team could go out and play. We did that, but we just came up short."

There was a sense that Zebo perhaps never got the opportunity to show what he could do on the wing. He was due to play there in the warm-up against England before Rob Kearney came down with a late hamstring injury meaning a late reshuffle and doubts over the full-back meant that the Corkman became his default back-up.

"I don't really look at it like that. If I'm playing full-back I'll back myself to play, if I'm playing wing or whatever," was his own take.

"To be honest, once first phase or as soon as the structure has gone out - 80pc of the game is played in phase play, so once the structure is gone I don't have a number on my back as I don't consider myself.

"For that 20pc of the game played under the structure of first-phase or defending first-phase I'd be No 11 or 15, but after that I'm just a rugby player and I just go out and do the same things I do no matter what number's on my back, I just go out and do what I can do and that's get the ball and do things."

What was noticeable about Zebo during the tournament was his willingness to get involved in the backline and dictate the play.

Perhaps the best example was his sensational pass to Keith Earls against Romania that set his Munster team-mate up for a try, but he was often involved in the fray when other back-three players would have held off. It added a dimension to Ireland's attacking play that can be built on as Schmidt attempts to build on the World Cup performances this season.

As Zebo points out, most of the game is unstructured phase play and Ireland appeared to run out of ideas at times in contrast to the eventual winners New Zealand.

"The game is played heads up and 80pc of the game is going to be played in phases and playing what you see, you have to be able to do that. That's the way I try and play the game," he explains.


"If we want to succeed on that world stage where there's teams like New Zealand and Australia we might maybe have to do that a little bit more.

"I do enjoy it, I just love getting my hands on the ball. Sometimes I get fed up on the wing where I'm just hanging out there waiting for the passes to come and they don't come. It's really frustrating.

"I'm more than happy to go in and set up other people, to assist and just make things happen. Sometimes we fall into structures and it's not exciting as a player and it can get easy for defences. It's something I took upon myself to go in and change it up, I'm more than happy to go in first-receiver or wherever."

For now, the focus is firmly on a Munster side who have started the season strongly even if they were fitful against Treviso last weekend.

The province have lost Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony is out for the season, leaving some to worry about leadership. Zebo is not going to start giving sermons from the mount, but he believes he can provide leadership in other ways.

"It depends how you define leadership really. I'd consider myself a leader if you're talking about a player on the pitch," he explains. "I go out and I play. I don't need to talk to try and inspire people, I try and inspire people on the pitch and that's how I'd consider myself a leader.

"I'm not really a talker or a gee-up kind of guy, I'd only make lads laugh. I'd definitely consider myself a leader on the pitch when I see the lads react to the things I'm doing.

"We'd be very confident in our team, the players who are either injured or have left are big holes to fill in our dressing-room, but when it comes to ability I think we have the depth in our squad to cope."

Munster fans will hope he's right. They'll also hope that he signs on the dotted line in the weeks to come. Zebo has a lot to offer, the hope is that they appreciate that at Lansdowne Road.

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