Tuesday 23 January 2018

Zebo: I probably won't reach my playing peak for another three years

Simon Zebo. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Four years ago today, we sat in Cardiff to celebrate the opening of the Six Nations and cheer a superstar's coming of age.

We cared little, then, for whether Simon Zebo would get better or worse; we just revelled in the now-ness of his wow-ness.

He did more than flick the ball that day; he flicked a light switch of imagination in all who watched on, even if it barely illuminated the dullards who continue to foist evening kick-offs, bonus points and the endless detritus of marketing meetings upon rugby supporters.

Brian O'Driscoll was in the moment too; he was man of the match as Zebo grabbed the spotlight; but he also saw the future. Zebo's flick was the sensation of the day but he had announced himself much earlier when O'Driscoll found him with a pass that few in the sport's history could have envisaged.

"Thrown in the hope that the guy is where you think he is," the great man explained. With one pass, he knew Zebo would be in the right place at the right time. He could see the future. His name was Zebo.

The Munster man would break his foot and miss the rest of the campaign and, subsequently, his flickering genius would not always suit the often ascetic vision of those who coached him.

Four years later, perceptions of him have changed but he has lost none of his sparkle; and yet, he also feels that he has much more of himself to give.

He can see the future, too; gloriously, it offers more than even we may have imagined. We all presumed he would get better; he has. Zebo, though, is different, in so many ways. He assumes he can get even better.

"I'm a more complete player now," he admits, before adding the caveat. "I'm still only 26, I still have a long way to get better. I probably won't be at my best until I'm 28 or 29, I would feel anyway.

"I still have a good bit to go but personally I feel like I'm getting there. I'm excited about the way I've been playing and the way that we are trying to play in Munster and in Ireland, so hopefully we can keep playing in this positive way and hopefully I can play as much as I can."

Ireland have altered their strategy since the World Cup; the Chicago coup against the All Blacks representing a decisive shift compared to the agonising defeat in Dublin in 2013.

Instead of sitting back, trusting to defence, Ireland maintained front-foot attack in Chicago and prospered; it is the only way they can go now and players like Zebo, and Saturday's likely championship debutant Garry Ringrose, will represent its pulsating core.

"As long as I'm healthy and fit and we've got that attacking mindset and no fear about us, then myself, Keith Earls, Garry, all these players are able to bring out special moments in games. Big moment win big games. There are plenty of players in our back five and in our squad that are able to bring out these moments.

"As long as we go out with the right mindset then those players will be able to execute, keep riding the wave and the momentum."

Although he denies he has changed professionally, the simple truth must be that he has had to, chiefly by Joe Schmidt's constant demands on work-rate and defensive application, both of which have improved immeasurably. Within him, though, his heart rules his head.

"I don't think I have changed," he says. "I still go out and try and play the way I was at 19 or 20, play with a smile on my face.

"I back myself to do things that ultimately contribute to winning matches. I try to go out there with that spirit and obviously there are areas you have to improve as you get older. In terms of my mindset, I haven't changed," he adds. "I've done alright so far so if I continue to improve I can do even better."

If he can foresee the future as O'Driscoll once did, the joy will keep pouring forth. 

Irish Independent

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