ROB PENNEY has urged Simon Zebo to do everything that is in his power to fight his way back into the Ireland team, even if it means curbing his on-field enthusiasm.
The Munster winger has not played for his country since the night he was whisked from the summer tour in the United States to join the Lions tour. He broke a bone in his foot in October and missed the November series through injury.
He returned to fitness in January and was named on the Ireland Wolfhounds bench for their win over England Saxons, but has not been involved in the international squad since, with Dave Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden – who is also just back from injury – getting the nod ahead of him for the back-three spots.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has name-checked the 23-year-old winger during this Six Nations, but Zebo (pictured, below) is not currently involved in the unbeaten campaign and Penney said there were "some challenges" to him getting back in.
"Look, Zeebs is in a great space," he said yesterday of the player who scored a try against Cardiff Blues last Saturday night. "Zeebs is a fantastic bloke and he needs to be embraced for what he is. He's not your quintessential rugby man, and you'd never want him to be.
"Zeebs is loving the football, and that's all you ask of your players. No matter what jersey they put on, as long as they're loving what they do, they're going to get a performance, and if they get selected for the next team up – whatever that may be – on the back of loving the game and doing the right thing and the jerseys on the way up, that's all you can ever ask.
"So, for Zeebs, he understands that. He just loves being at Thomond Park in front of the Munster crowd. They embrace him for who he is.
"He's in a good space and there's some challenges for him to get back in the Irish team, and he knows that. And the only thing he can do is perform outstandingly well.
"He's coming off a long injury that could potentially be very niggly. He's done the right thing rehab-wise, got himself in really good shape physically, returned at a time when the foot shouldn't be an issue going forward for him and now he's just got to be consistent on and off the field to prove to other people that he's ready to be an international footballer."
While Penney admits that Zebo's trademark celebration is not to his particular taste, he says that he believes the winger should be allowed to express himself.
"I think individuals should be allowed to express themselves. I've always said that and I think as soon as you start curbing an instinct that's very pleasurable then you take away something special about the individual. I'd just hate to see that happen," he said.
"We call it the 'tall poppy syndrome' in New Zealand, where if someone sticks their head up they get it chopped off and I just think it's so wrong for young men, it's a tough enough life as it is, so if you've got someone out there embracing life and showing what life's really about – for living – and Zeebs is doing what he does on the field then that should be embraced. I hate people being criticised for that sort of thing.
"I'd be more conservative in nature myself but it's not for me to tell everybody else how to live their lives and I'm not going to judge him on what he does. In fact I do see why he does it, form his own inspirational perspective.
"There's a group of people at Thomond Park and there's a group of people at Kingsholm and a group of people at Perpignan and they all love it. And there's a group of people hate it. It polarises people but it doesn't mean it's wrong.
"If he's getting advice that he should restrict that and it would enhance his international selection then he should heed that advice, but that's up to him and the person who's giving him that advice."
Penney, meanwhile, confirmed that Munster could enter the market for a hooker after Niall Scannell joined Damien Varley and Mike Sherry on the injury list, with former Leinster target Quentin MacDonald among a number of options.
Donnacha Ryan should make his return from a knee injury this weekend against Zebre, while Tommy O'Donnell and Felix Jones will also play some part after being released by Ireland.
Donncha O'Callaghan is set to become the province's most capped player when he makes his 241st appearance at Musgrave Park in what will be Munster's final game at the Cork venue before its redevelopment.