Monday 23 April 2018

Simon Zebo: It would be nice to run the ball a bit more often

Ireland wing Simon Zebo runs in the first try during the RBS Six Nations game between Wales and Ireland at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, 2013
Ireland wing Simon Zebo runs in the first try during the RBS Six Nations game between Wales and Ireland at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, 2013
David Kelly

David Kelly

Two years after Simon Zebo illuminated Cardiff's Millennium Stadium with the most audacious of flicked try-scoring assists, few would have wagered that his genius may have been calmed to such a degree that he now enthusiastically wallows in a game of kick-chase.

It would seem, to all intents and purposes, like asking Lionel Messi or Bernard Brogan to play in goal.

Yet he wouldn't be in this Ireland team, gunning for back-to-back titles, had he not wholly re-calibrated his innate individualism for the benefit of the collective; it was, primarily, why Joe Schmidt exiled him in the early days of his tenure.

Now fully subscribed to the head coach's philosophy, Zebo now forms an indelible cog in a back three whose kicking and defensive game has established itself as an immoveable bedrock of a team on the verge of a Grand Slam.

Zebo's most pivotal contributions have been a staggering ability to chase and regain the contestable kick, while there was that momentous last play against France when he dragged centre Remi Lamerat into touch.

"He's a free-spirited young man," noted Schmidt afterwards. In one of many post-mortems, a wag suggested, cynically, that the Kiwi had now successfully evicted every ounce of that spirit from the ebullient winger.

"It's a case of convincing all the players to keep that appetite and be involved as often as possible, even if it's not with the ball in hand," Schmidt had argued of Zebo's extraordinary transformation from his erstwhile status as a twinkle-toed speedster.

The change had been necessary, though, and the player belatedly realised this; if he did not adapt, Schmidt would not pick him. And so he did.

Munster men Felix Jones and Simon Zebo pause for a moment during international training
Munster men Felix Jones and Simon Zebo pause for a moment during international training

And, if he remains relatively subdued as an attacking force on the field, off it, he remains even more circumspect when invited to recall that seminal moment in Cardiff two years ago.

Like the Declan Kidney era which would soon follow his heroics into the history books, it is as if a veil has been discreetly drawn upon that time, such that few folk, he informs us, even mention it now.

"Ah here and there, but not too often," he relates, as he prepares to start his ninth successive game for Ireland following his year out of the team.

"What's in the now is probably more talked about, so I suppose everybody's asking are you up for the Wales game, how are you going to do? So yeah, it's just all about the Wales game."

The exuberance that was in evidence on that day in Cardiff two seasons ago, and which Brian O'Driscoll enthused about so ebulliently, has been necessarily becalmed by Schmidt's intense coaching focus.

Instead of thrills and spills, accurate drills are now his main priority, yet he doesn't feel that the "old" Zebo compares unfavourably with the newer model.

"Not much," he says. "I've improved a couple of aspects but I was 22 then. I'm now 24 and I'll be 25 soon so I'd hope that I've improved a little bit anyway.

"I've still a little bit to go but the things I was doing back then aren't too far away from what I'm doing now, but just a little more emphasis on the smaller details."

Mercifully, he feels something dynamic may explode into life this weekend in what is traditionally a high-scoring, open fixture.

"Yeah, I think so. If the game pans out where we do get a lot of ball, a lot of counter-attack ball, I reckon it could be very exciting.

"It's a pretty dangerous back-three. Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney are exceptional and very good counter-attack runners. So, yeah, it would be nice to run the ball a bit more often."

If it may seem like more a case of wistful thinking as opposed to meaningful intent; but his growing relationship with the newly-forged three-quarter line invites some optimism, particularly the chief distributor, Jared Payne.

"Jared's skills are excellent," he says. "You can tell he's a Kiwi, I think his skills were probably honed in a year or two earlier than the boys over here.

"But he's a quality operator who always seems to make the right decision at the right time. He's kind of like Brian in the way every time he gets the ball he seems to have that extra second more time. I think he's a classy player and I like linking up with him.

"He's got everything in the locker. It just depends on the game. If he's asked to make a 20-yard flat pass to Tommy or myself to score a try I've no doubt he'll be able to do it."

It remains clear, perhaps, that the emphasis will naturally remain with the team playing to its undoubted strengths which, if an 11th successive win is earned tomorrow, will mark a record for an Irish international outfit.

"I suppose it hasn't been as much of a focus for everybody watching the games as it is now in this championship because we're doing it quite a bit," Zebo explains.

"That's because we're seeing spaces and it's effective and we're doing well against teams in the air. So if it's not broke don't try and fix it.

"The first run-out we had together would have bit a little bit rusty compared to where we are now. I think we have a lot more confidence training with each other all the time and playing matches together.

"Playing matches consistently together just builds a rhythm and feel for a game. I'd know when Rob is going to duck back under or if he's going to hit me. You get a rhythm with the other players in the back-line.

"It's just consistency and getting to know each other.

"In terms of the kicking, it's one of our strengths. At the same time Wales have an extremely good back three in the air - Liam Williams and George North are both extremely good in their high-ball skills.

"I don't think they'd have as much a fear of us in the air but if it's on to go there and we feel we can dominate them then we'll go there."

His free spirit, one hopes, remains unquenchable.

Irish Independent

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