Tuesday 24 October 2017

The Zen of Zebo offers escape route from all the pressures

Ireland’s Simon Zebo is tackled by Italy’s Sergio Parisse during Saturday’s Six Nations clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Ireland’s Simon Zebo is tackled by Italy’s Sergio Parisse during Saturday’s Six Nations clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Sport should offer an escape from reality and, for a few wonderfully fleeting moments, it did so; the clouds parting to sparkle some spring sunshine upon thousands of faces.

As much as we should be thankful to the nation that gave the world the renaissance for being so generously accommodating, it was up to Ireland to adopt the mindset to take advantage of it.

Italy were not fit for the purpose of providing a sporting contest so, in that sense, much analysis is redundant and irrelevant; one can only question the methods adopted by the inevitable victors.

The answer was writ large upon those smiling faces who reflected the exuberance of those parading their wares before them; after weeks of subconscious inhibition from this squad, suddenly sport had regained its capacity to make one exult.

This was fun and, even as the head coach wandered into a statistical miasma afterwards, or his players strained to inform anyone who cared that they had "work-ons", it was important to remember that.

This is supposed to be entertainment, not a stilted boardroom presentation of possession statistics.

Simon Zebo didn't have to be reminded. When the sun comes out, all he wants to do is play. He did not set the tone or provide the platform; it is just that his infectious delight seems to awaken the little child in all our hearts.

"It's coming from everywhere, we were in the groove, in the zone a bit today," he reports, breathlessly and with an indelible smile.

"Every attacking option we called seemed to be working out there and getting us gain-line. We went out there with a positive mindset and I think it showed in the end in terms of how we tried to play the game.


"It was exciting out in the back-line with everyone putting their hand up, looking for the ball, trying to put it into space. It was great to be a part of it and it felt really exciting out there."

Do they still call him Django? Regardless, like his friends, he was unchained on Saturday; the crowds surfed the liberated wave too; we last listened to this mood music on 'Super Saturday' when restraint was parked with such abandon.

Hopefully, this mood can last for an Irish squad who have, through a lot of bad luck and a lot of bad choices, been hemmed in on all sides by so many of their own insecurities. This was an important emancipation.

"Yeah, a little bit," adds Zebo. "It felt like one of those days, it felt like the first time in a while where we were properly enjoying ourselves out there.

"Maybe that was down to the weather, but it was an exciting day to be a part of and everyone out there was playing with a high tempo and a smile on their face. I think we were really dangerous at times and it shows."

That they were never so dangerous at a time when it was least expected demonstrated the attitudinal shift; a kick-off before half-time, with a healthy lead, is normally a time for consolidation.

Instead, Jonathan Sexton chose to deliver a restart to be re-gathered; the wonderful Donnacha Ryan did so and, from their own 22, Ireland effected a fairly decent impression of the Barbarians, with ne'er a hand laid upon them.

Zebo's cat-flap pass to Jared Payne was the riff that raised this ensemble piece to an orchestral level; some in the press box fretted about a forward pass and frantically jotted down notes.

It reminded one of a chiding Caledonian sage of old; this was a time to cherish the moment of the score, not worry about what minute it happened.

Perhaps it was far from being the try from the end of the earth scored by the French all those years ago but in the context of where Ireland have been of late, it was an Irish try from the end of their earth.

For they have had to dig deep to find themselves of late; the pleasure was in seeing them emerge unblinking into the glorious light.

"You don't mind not being on the end of it once it's a five-pointer," Zebo adds modestly, nodding correctly to the collective, without whom his brush strokes could not even dare to splash the canvas with such colour.

"That's good enough for me, I think I'm having fun when those sort of things start to happen for me. I was just happy to be involved in it."

He had been smashed moments earlier when he was chasing a kick, an over-zealous Italian kicking his elbow instead of the ball; he barely noticed.

"You know, it was probably the first dry day I've played in since the World Cup so the ball was gripping to the fingers quite easily. It just felt good. It felt fun for the first time in a while."

Schmidt and his coaches will parse at length the reasons why his team had so much fun and, although he stresses "the licence to play is always there", we sincerely hope the looseness of it all will not have offended his gut sensibilities.

Regardless of the context, it should be the content that marks the way forward for Ireland.

"Inevitably, you get a little bit of a spring in your step from scoring tries and feeling good about getting out there and having a bit of time and space and linking with other players," adds Schmidt.

"You play the game because you enjoy running and linking, and I think the players enjoyed that game and certainly, when you're a competitor as they all are, you enjoy winning."

Ireland will not wallow on what they have lost this season.

"That's key as well, you know," says Zebo, whose glass is always over-flowing. "As a squad we never tend to dwell too much on the past, you know.

"The Scotland game will give us another opportunity to improve and hopefully we can go out with another positive mindset and play the game well."

With him in it? Schmidt has hinted at Rob Kearney's availability but the enlightened mood should allow Zebo the opportunity to reprise his enthusiastic effort against Scotland.

"Ah, I just try and enjoy myself and I'll try and enjoy myself this week, train well and see what happens," the Munster man offers, grinning still.

No pressure here. Going with the flow might just have been the best thing to happen this Ireland team for some time.

Sometimes, sport's propensity to put a smile on people's faces shouldn't be under-estimated.

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