Saturday 14 December 2019

Zebo proves he can be Ireland’s shining light of the future

John Kelly

Last Sunday's result was a relief for an old timer like Donncha O'Callaghan. He's been involved in the European Cup for Munster since 1998, when he was first sprung from the bench as a green but eager 19-year-old against a powerful Perpignan side.

He has been a pivotal member of Munster squads throughout their great run of quarter-final qualifications since his first season, making it through to the knockout stages on an unparalleled 12 consecutive occasions.

However Donncha wasn't reflecting on his own personal achievements after the match.

He wanted to pay tribute to the younger members of his team, and in particular highlight the hunger for success of the new generation.

Simon Zebo was at his very best against Racing Metro.

He has been a breath of fresh air in the backline and has shown flashes of pure brilliance throughout this campaign.

His individual try against in the opening round in Paris is a contender for try of the season.

Zebo has demonstrated that he can be one of Munster's and Ireland's brightest stars for many years to come.

However it hasn't always been a certainty that his career would progress beyond his international underage achievements.

Zebo isn't the archetypal product of the academy system.

He is laid-back and sometimes doesn't appear to be as 'intense' as a Munster player should be.

However. it's that relaxed nature that comes through in the fluidity of his play.


It is a pleasure to watch a player who has so much confidence in his own ability, that he will back himself against the very best.

His footwork is dazzling and throughout the season, Zebo has created gaps where none existed.

It's also brilliant to watch a player really enjoying his game and interacting with the crowd.

When Munster scored their fourth try last Sunday, Zebo celebrated in style and engaged the fans by holding up a four-fingered bonus point signal to the jubilant supporters.

O'Callaghan was quick to sing Zebo's praises shortly after the game. I can understand why.

Munster's success in the last 15 seasons has had a downside for development. It's very hard to change a winning team and for years there was very little turnover in Munster's starting 15.

But since 2008 there has been a significant evolution of the side.

O'Callaghan was the only survivor last Sunday from the 15 that started against Toulouse in the 2008 Heineken Cup final.

Unfortunately, though, there is very little patience for transition following a history of such success.

Media and supporters have questioned whether the current crop of players has the same ambition or motivation as successful teams of the past.

Donncha responded on Sunday after the game by explaining that when "Simon Zebo pulls on the red shirt, it means as much to him as it did to John Kelly".

He was drawing parallels with the famous Miracle Match in 2003, when we achieved the improbable against Gloucester.

That day we wore the red jersey with pride and passion, and it showed in our performance.

The new generation demonstrated last Sunday that they continue to wear the jersey with that special pride.

Donncha's point regarding the perceived lack of faith in his new team is a valid one.

There is no margin for error for the new generation.

When I played my first European Cup match, nobody expected us to win a match, and winning a pool was a fantasy.

When we bowed out of our group in 1997 but beat Harlequins and Will Carling in our final game, we celebrated like we had beaten the All Blacks.

Donncha made his European debut the following season, off the bench early in the first half against Perpignan.

It wasn't exactly a glittering start to his European career.

Declan Kidney replaced the overawed youngster about 20 minutes after he had introduced him.

An individual or a team performance of that level wouldn't be acceptable these days, with expectations set so high.


A performance of Donncha's calibre that day in Perpignan could have serious repercussions for the career of one of the new generation.

It's time we gave the youngsters a break.

There have been so many encouraging signs for the future.

Zebo has been the standard-bearer, but he has been followed by Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, Peter O'Mahony and Ian Keatley.

The 'A' team is also going well and there are promising futures for JJ Hanrahan, Ivan Dineen, Dave O'Callaghan, Stephen Archer and others.

They just need time to develop.

And the guidance of a few old-timers like Donncha.

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