Diamond finally finds his sparkle
Simon Zebo always had the talents to make a big impression, writes Andy Bull, but this season he's justified the faith of his coaches
The pass, flung fast and loose, wasn't the finest Jamie Heaslip had ever thrown. It flew about a foot behind Simon Zebo, and given that he was in full flow, the winger did not have time to think when he saw how wide of the mark the pass was. Instinct took over.
Zebo kicked his left leg up a little in his backstride and, well, you've probably seen it by now. If you haven't, no doubt you will do soon, this afternoon, or in any other number of Six Nations highlights reels in the weeks and years ahead. Without checking his stride, he knocked the ball with his heel, leaned back and tapped it up again with his outstretched left hand, then turned, gathered it in with the tips of his fingers, and with that one little flick, things changed.
Lynda and Arthur Zebo are now so sick of the media attention their boy has been given since that moment of sporting magic that they do not talk to the press anymore. "I'm so sorry," Lynda explains. "It has been totally overwhelming."
Simon Zebo does not seem quite so put-out by all the attention, however. That night, after Ireland's eight-point win over Wales, he was playing DJ at Havana Browns nightclub, dancing while he dropped a Kanye and Jay-Z tune on a crowd of a hundred or so happy revellers, the tipsier ones lurching over the decks to shout their congratulations for the try he scored that afternoon. Somebody filmed a snippet of it, and the footage popped up on the websites of a few tabloids.
"Zeebs?" says the veteran Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll, with a knowing grin, "he is one of a kind".
This afternoon's Test against England will be Zebo's fifth. His debut came last summer, against the All Blacks. At the start of that same season he had played a mere six games for Munster, but he finished it as their leading try-scorer, with 12 in 19 starts, including three in a Heineken Cup match against Northampton. That made them sit up. Two days later, Zebo was whistled up to join the Irish Wolfhounds when Luke Fitzgerald dropped out injured, and he duly sliced through the England Saxons to score a try in the final seconds of the match.
So far, so flash. Zebo is far from the first fleet-footed kid who caught short a defence or two in his first full season, before the opposition have heard who he is or had a chance to analyse his style. If you want to know what makes him a little different to some of the others, you need to flick ahead a few months to the autumn internationals, and Ireland's match against South Africa. Rob Kearney was out injured, and, on the strength of what he had seen in training, head coach Declan Kidney decided to stick Zebo in at fullback. It was the first time he had played in the position in his professional career. Against the Boks, of all teams, this was a tough ask. They love nothing so much as bombarding the fullback.
Ireland lost, 16-12, but Zebo was outstanding, taking his catches, making his tackles, and doing his damndest to break the gain line. "I always thought I could play 15," he said afterwards. "I'd just never really had the chance till that autumn series. So, yeah, I've no issues whatsoever. I'll play there again if I'm asked to."
Three weeks later he was, against Argentina, and again he scored a try.
"That's the key thing about Simon," says Ian Costello, the skills coach at Munster. "He is not just a speed merchant. He has fantastic evasion skills, good balance, good instincts about when to support and what support lines to run, sometimes he pushes himself into first receiver, so he is quite happy to be a playmaker, then defensively he has an excellent kicking game and an excellent fielding game. He's not a one-trick pony. He is top-class in four or five areas, and you can't negate them all. If people close him down in one area, it just leaves him room to exploit another."
It was not always that way. On the field Zebo plays with his socks round his ankles, but off it he has pulled them up in the last couple of years. As a kid he was too talented ever to settle on one hobby alone, playing football for Avondale, hurling for Blackrock, and Gaelic football for his school, Pres Brothers in Cork. The two things he possessed were speed and daring.
"I'd love to tell you I saw all this coming," says his first rugby coach at Cork Con, John O'Mahoney. "But that would be stretching things. That audacity he showed though, against Wales, it's very much in character with the man I know. I first met him when he was eight, and he stood out for two things: he was a lovely kid, and he was quick."
That's his inheritance from his father. Arthur Zebo, born and raised in Martinique, was an 800m runner. He qualified for the French team at the 1976 Olympics but broke his leg while on national service so never got the chance to run alongside Steve Ovett and the eventual champion Alberto Juantorena. Still, while in Paris he met his future wife Lynda, and moved back to Cork with her.
Simon was clocked at 11.10sec for the 100m when at school, and his times over 40m are the fastest that have ever been seen in the Irish team, speedier even than those of Craig Gilroy. "It was 9.4 metres per second," Zebo explained. "But I was carrying the ball. I'd have to do it without the ball and see how fast I can really go."
The French connection almost caused Zebo to join Toulouse, who made an offer to him earlier this season. He speaks the language and has family in the region but decided there was unfinished business in Munster. It would have been rough justice if the province had lost him, as Costello explains.
"I think he'd be the first to admit that for a while he didn't come close to realising his talent. He needed to find his own way, and I don't think that really happened until he was around 20. His coaches at Munster came down on him hard to get him to realise the potential. And Simon bought into it. He has transformed himself in the last 18 months."
"We always knew," Costello says, "that if we carve off a few rough edges we could have an unbelievable diamond. You could see it shining in him like a light."