Sinead Kissane: Zebo will miss Munster but Munster will miss Zebo's show-bizz even more
The Racing 92 team injected something called fun into last Saturday's Champions Cup final when the players wore berets as they ran onto the pitch at the San Mamés Stadium in Bilbao.
The gesture was a tribute to Racing's flamboyant past and their team from the 1980s which was known as Le Show-bizz - this was a side which once played wearing pink bow ties and hydrated by drinking champagne at half-time with joie de vivre on and off the pitch.
No Irish player looks like a better fit for a club abroad than Simon Zebo and Racing 92. That's because Zebo's father is French and he's a fluent-French speaker but also because Zebo's character and the traditional approach of this Parisian club seem aligned.
Playing for the fun of playing was part of the ethos of the Racing Club and it's hard to think of an Irish player who has more of a carefree element in his game than the Corkman.
Zebo brought his version of Le Show-bizz to Munster and Ireland. From his back-heeled flick in Ireland's game against Wales at the Millennium Stadium in 2013 to his offload to Jared Payne for the Try of the Season against Italy in 2016, his exquisite pirouetting out of tackles and his floaters for passes - bringing flair to Irish rugby has been Zebo's natural register. Before he was part of Joe Schmidt's squad and since being left-out, Zebo took pleasure in being adored by fans, in celebrating tries and has generally maintained an image of someone who plays for fun.
Today could be Zebo's last game for Munster when they play Leinster in the PRO14 semi-final although the red corner will hope that's extended by a week.
Zebo will miss Munster but Munster will miss Zebo more. He will join a Racing squad this summer which looks closer to winning the Champions Cup than Munster while Munster will also be left without one of its main selling points. Zebo is Munster's top try scorer and a fire-starter.
After he was benched for the Champions Cup semi-final against Racing last month, he made a difference when he came on by scoring a try to raise questions over why he hadn't started in Bordeaux. In his last game at Thomond Park two weeks ago, it was Zebo's chip, chase, gather and pass to Keith Earls to score which turned the game.
"What he has is something you are born with, you can't be taught that killer instinct. It's hard to replace," Peter O'Mahony said following that win over Edinburgh. "He brings that little extra something special. And today, in a stalemate, he makes the difference."
With Ireland, nearly everyone is replaceable. Jacob Stockdale took over the wing position and ended the Six Nations as record try-scorer and player of the championship. But it's Munster who will really feel Zebo's absence.
It's not just his individual trickery that the team will miss but his impact on players around him - look at Earls who has benefited from Zebo's passing. In his column after Racing beat Munster in the Champions Cup semi-final, Ronan O'Gara said Zebo's absence from the team "spooked" Conor Murray.
"It was the first time in a Munster jersey I've seen Murray that rattled, and a lot of it could have been down to not having Zebo there," O'Gara wrote.
"There was a different chemistry in the backline with Zebo excluded, and by 'different' I don't mean better. A lot of Conor's discomfort came down to the fact the telepathic relationship he has with Zebo was removed from the equation."
As much as Irish rugby needs its players playing for the provinces, Zebo has made the right move to join Racing. The days of Munster bringing in a marquee name like Doug Howlett to bolster the backline are long gone. Zebo said he doesn't want regrets from his playing time so what better place to go to challenge himself than Racing, who will go into next season as serious European contenders. Zebo will join a coterie of international players, including new recruit, Scotland out-half Finn Russell, as well as Teddy Thomas - thinking of that trio in the same backline almost requires a lie-down so heady the mix will be. But berets off to Racing - they showed against Leinster that they also have the nous and defence as they came closer than any other team to toppling Leinster this season.
Before playing for the 100th time for Munster two years ago Zebo was asked what his favourite Munster try was. He choose one he scored against Racing at Thomond Park in 2013.
Munster needed a bonus point that day in order to get into the quarter-finals. When it looked like Zebo was going to be pushed into touch on the 22, he kicked a grubber, followed through, caught the ball and eluded Racing players to touch down and send Thomond Park wild. He scored a hat-trick that day - when Zebo produces the magic at the home of Munster rugby it always felt like show-time.
It's a big change for Zebo but some things might stay the same for him. No matter where he goes Zebo will have an audience to please and he will want to please that audience.
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