Sunday 15 December 2019

George Hook: Simon Zebo has been inexplicably overlooked by Ireland and Munster

George Hook

We will never know if Simon Zebo did enough against Wales last weekend to hang on to the Ireland XV jersey in Paris tomorrow.

Defensively, Zebo's long-standing problems continued on Sunday, yet his lines of running and ability to break through the Wales cover were, at times, sublime.

The role of full-back, like that of fly-half, needs plenty of time and practice in the position in order to fully understand the responsibilities involved. A solid defensive performance at 15 owes as much to the player being in the right place, at the right time, as it does the execution of a one-on-one tackle as the last line of defence.

Rob Kearney took months to develop what is now an acute positional awareness and his initial transformation from wing to full-back for Leinster resulted in plenty of errors and poor decision-making during his first few games.

Throughout his transition, though, Leinster had the good sense to stick with Kearney and he has enjoyed a successful Ireland and Lions career as a result.

When Felix Jones was forced to retire because of injury at the beginning of this season, immediately my thoughts turned to Zebo and Munster. For me, Jones' misfortune opened a window of opportunity for Zebo to transition from wing to full-back.

Ireland's Simon Zebo is tackled by Jamie Roberts during last Sunday's Six Nations match against Wales. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA.
Ireland's Simon Zebo is tackled by Jamie Roberts during last Sunday's Six Nations match against Wales. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA.

Zebo possess all the tools necessary to be a dangerous strike runner, with pace and quick feet in abundance. He was a significant attacking weapon against Wales last weekend and it was a joy to watch an Ireland full-back unleash the shackles and have a cut off the opposition defence.

Yet, inexplicably, with the full-back position crying out for Zebo's influence, Anthony Foley ignored the most obvious answer to his predicament and plumped for Andrew Conway instead.

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This infuriating selection by the Munster head coach bordered on ignorant. And the result is that Zebo has had very little game-time at full-back this season. Is it any wonder he was caught out on a couple of occasions last Sunday?

In two crucial positions, over the last two years, Foley has backed the wrong horse. He allowed JJ Hanrahan to leave Munster for Northampton because Ian Keatley was his number one choice at fly-half. Now, this season, Zebo's international career at full-back has suffered because Foley prefers Conway at 15. The case for Foley's defence is getting harder to fathom by the week. Tomorrow in Paris, Rob Kearney comes back into the starting XV in his familiar position. His form for Leinster this season has been decidedly poor, but just as the Ireland players looked reinvigorated against Wales last Sunday, one would hope that Kearney will rediscover his own form at the Stade de France.

In terms of his positional sense and in defence, Kearney will do a solid job. But the role of full-back requires so much more than catch and kick. Maxime Medard was a man possessed for France against Italy last weekend, offering himself as an attacking threat at every opportunity. Zebo did the same for Ireland against Wales.

It is a long time since I can recall Kearney playing with similar verve and ambition. If Ireland are to win in Paris, we must ask questions of a patchy French defence. There can be no room for absenteeism.

Italy provided a perfect blueprint on how to disrupt the French defence, but it requires every Ireland player busting a gut to make themselves available for work. Zebo would have been primed for the role. Hopefully, Kearney won't shirk away from his attacking responsibilities.

Luckily for Nathan White, Guy Noves has opted to change up his front-row and Jefferson Poirot comes in for Eddy Ben Arous at loosehead. Poirot is quick and mobile for a prop, but his scrummaging ability is decidedly average. If White is unable to cope with the 23-year-old at set-piece, he might as well hang up his boots.

The selection of Fergus McFadden among the replacements is massively underwhelming. Surely Ireland has other exciting young backs coming through the ranks, rather than a tried-and-tested winger that has flattered to deceive for several years? Where is the invention? Where is the new blood? Another conservative tick against the head coach.

Sean O'Brien's return to fitness is an obvious plus for the pack and the prospect of O'Brien and CJ Stander carrying ball at the French defence is enough to whet the appetite. But for Ireland, this is already must-win territory.

Last weekend's draw against Wales was one that got away and in order for Ireland to beat France in Paris, they must defend well and stop the home side from offloading the ball. Discipline will also be crucial; Jules Plisson can't be allowed free shots at goal.

A third successive title is still within Ireland's reach, but there is no more room for error. France will throw the ball around, so Ireland know what to expect. Whether the visitors can muster the energy and intensity required to beat France in Paris after a bruising battle against Wales six days ago remains to be seen. This one is too close to call.

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