Monday 19 February 2018

Video: ‘If there’s a gap we’ll have a crack and if we can run one in from 80 yards, then great’

"Ooh, it's comfy!" Ireland's captain Jamie Heaslip is wallowing in the sumptuous elegance of a French Victorian armchair.

But he could just as easily have been alluding to the sense of ease with which his Irish team broaches its latest Six Nations assault.

Despite being gnawed by maddening inconsistency, a traumatic change of captaincy and the shock of seeing one of its box-office stars decamping to pastures greener, Ireland are, nevertheless, bristling with pre-tournament chutzpah.

There may be comfort in the surroundings, in the recall of a former Lions captain and two former European players of the year, not to mention the imminent world record partnership at midfield (for the 49th time) of messrs D'Arcy and O'Driscoll.

But there is also a vibrant freshness at play too, no more so than in the two speed merchants deployed on the wings with a licence to thrill.

The selections of Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo are hardly predicated upon limiting the damage potentially wrought by the two Welsh giants they will immediately face this Saturday.

Instead, mirroring an attacking intent that saw Ireland score more points than any other side last season, that made more line breaks and scored more tries than in any championship since 2007, this team aims to strike fear into their opponents.

"Well, it's always in the back of our minds – if it's on then have a go," said Zebo, whose remarkable rise to prominence will see him win his fourth cap, and a first Six Nations start, on Saturday in Cardiff.

"Especially with Craig there, if we think there's a gap there we're going to have a crack. Hopefully one or two holes appear and if we can run one in from 80 yards, then great."

The reverberations are already being felt in the valleys at the Welsh base in the Vale of Glamorgan, from where Alex Cuthbert – all 6ft 6in and 17st of him – posted his squad's thinly veiled respect.


"They are two class wingers," said Cuthbert. "They are playing really well for their clubs. They are young as well, so they've got a lot of enthusiasm and they are going to want to put a statement down in their first Six Nations.

"They are going to be a stern test and it's going to be hard work against them. They are going to be the danger men for Ireland, so we are doing our homework on them. They are obviously a bit smaller, but they are good tacklers and they have got good footwork."

Heaslip smiled when asked what Zebo will bring to the party, because the Ireland camp know only too intimately that his sleight of foot on the field is equally matched off it.

"We all know about Zebs' talent and speed," he laughed. "Know what he brings to us? Dance moves! But, listen, he works hard every day at whatever he does. But, yeah, he entertains us by dancing and rapping. We're calling him Django these days."

The head coach may have missed that reference, but he is finely attuned to the innate flair of a talent he first espied on the school playing fields of his native Cork.

"I'd know him going further back to my own school," said the erstwhile PBC teacher. "Listen, he's just a fella who enjoys his rugby. Sometimes when someone has a natural talent you might be worried that he may just use that and fall back on it all the time.

"But, in fairness, he has worked on his game, he has taken on board a few things that have been requested of him.

Zebo has been officially clocked as the fastest man ever to wear an Irish rugby jersey, beating Denis Hickie's one-time claim and the speed at which he has climbed to the summit of the game could threaten to overwhelm him.

Instead, this son of a Martinique distance runner owes his calm and collected persona to the tranquillity of his father's personality, such that even potential stardom hardly fazes him.

"People's perception might be that you don't take it seriously, but I suppose I started playing rugby because I enjoyed it and I wanted to have fun," Zebo said.

"If I stopped having fun then I'm going to stop playing rugby. If anybody wants to look at that as a negative then let them look at it that way and be bitter. I'm having fun; I'm enjoying my rugby and, hopefully, keep playing and playing well."

Zebo could have been the first Irishman to opt for the France route this season, but the fluent French speaker opted to remain in Munster, spurning, among others, Toulouse.


He is reluctant to broach Jonny Sexton's moral quandary, but, as an aside, does admit he could charge him for French lessons.

Zebo will have enough to occupy him this weekend against a certain George North, who fended off much heavier men than the Corkman in recent meetings between these two foes.

"Erm, I suppose," he said hesitantly when asked whether Wales' physicality could expose him. It is a rare sign of vulnerability.

"Wales are a very strong outfit and they've got some really big, physical players, but they've other attributes as well.

"I rate George North very highly. He's an excellent player. He's big, strong, fast, he has great high-ball skills and his off-loading is excellent as well. He's just an all-round threat.

"He's a very good player and has shown that over the last few seasons. But no man is impossible to take down. He's an exceptional rugby player and all of us are going to have to be on our game if we're going to dominate the physical battle."

Ireland – and Zebo – will be taken out of their comfort zone on Saturday. It will be fascinating to see how they respond.

Irish Independent

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