Sport Rugby World Cup 2019

Wednesday 16 October 2019

'There is definitely a fear factor there' - Simon Zebo on Ireland's World Cup campaign and Joe Schmidt

Joe Schmidt with Simon Zebo back in 2017. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt with Simon Zebo back in 2017. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

We're sitting beside Simon Zebo in a pub and we are all in need of a drink.

Ireland have beaten Russia but played like a team already nursing a hangover. Joe Schmidt appears on a TV screen selling the dream of an Irish side who are performing just like he expects them to be.

One of us wonders what the Kiwi might have really been like behind closed doors following the Japanese mugging. "He'd blame Zebo!"

We hear some Irish fans have been chanting his name, perhaps drunkenly, in Kobe. But even if Zebo's status as a bête noire may be past its sell-by date, his impassioned pleas on behalf of his scarred erstwhile colleagues in green certainly remain valid.

"It's Joe's way of playing," he says, referring to Schmidt, who remains wedded to a game-plan that faltered at the last World Cup and which Zebo fears may do so again.

"Joe is his own man and he wants to play his way. It's very evident. The set-piece moves have his fingerprints all over it.

"But after that, when the game is in phase play, we just lack a bit of freedom. Forwards get used quite a lot and if you're playing South Africa, a really big pack, you can't really just do the one-out runners.

"You see a lot of balls from nine just to hit it up for the forwards and so on. If it doesn't go forward you just tend to kick the ball into the air.

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"I'd like to change that but it doesn't seem to be changing, so. Ireland have had great success with it but you need more variety and ability to express yourself if you want to break down top-quality defences.

"Something different would go a long way especially with the talent we have in the group. The players are definitely there.

"If they're given the licence they can be as good as any backs running on to front-foot ball."

However, freedom of expression on the pitch demands freedom of expression off it, too. Can anyone threaten to challenge authority and demand a different way of doing business, even at this late stage?

Judging by their leaden displays, the Irish players seem too cowed to raise their collective heads above the parapet.

"There is a bit of pressure," adds Paddy Power ambassador Zebo.

"I wouldn't say they play out of fear, but there is definitely a fear factor there in terms of mistakes or off-loading, trying something and it not coming off.

"It's a tricky one, I wouldn't have been the one going to talk to Joe about our style of play or anything like that. It's the senior players.

"I'd like to see Jonathan Sexton and Joey Carbery in the team, two play-makers. A bit more width on the game, it'd be very good.

"You don't want to turn our centres into battering rams, we need to have expansion on our game and it's not there at the minute.

"It's evident in the performances, we're not able to get the ball wide and finish the chances we're creating. So hopefully that changes fairly quickly."

  • Simon Zebo is a Paddy Power rugby ambassador and columnist with Paddy Power News (news.paddypower.com).

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