A couple of years back, I was in a restaurant in Cork when I noticed Simon Zebo down the back with a few friends.
I assumed immediately that they were just rugby mates of his, but it turned out they were old GAA team-mates from his time playing Gaelic football for St Michael's. Zebo has always fascinated me on a number of levels.
Firstly, for his demeanour in the heat of battle, that almost smiling indifference to the stresses and pressures of elite sport. As someone who was the polar opposite on my biggest days with Kerry, I'm forever intrigued by those who - like Zebo - seem to take massive occasions in their stride.
But, secondly, because of that image of him with old GAA friends in Cork, long after their days together as youthful team-mates.
Zebo, I understand, is fiercely loyal in his friendships. There is an intensity of trust and comradeship there that can, sometimes, be overlooked because of what seems an almost flippant style of play.
He is currently in international Test exile because of the decision to reputedly quadruple his salary in 2018 by signing for French Top 14 club Racing 92.
So I was delighted to catch up with him via Skype last week to discuss, among other things, that exile, why his style never quite suited Joe Schmidt's Irish game-plan and - as a mixed-race man - his experience of racism in sport.
Tomás: Without actually knowing you, I just get the sense that Paris probably suits you. Would that be the case?
Zebo: Down to the ground. It's an incredible city. You have everything you want and, yet, you can get home to Cork just as easily as driving to Dublin. So yeah, it's an amazing place, the family are loving it, the weather is that bit better, particularly in the summertime.
Even the arena we play in is mega, with the fireworks, the strobe lights, the big screens, the cheerleaders, everything. It's this big show for every game and you get this buzz of being part of a really big team. So it's cool, definitely cool.
Tomás: Following you on social media, it's obvious that you're a big family man. Tell me about settling in over there. You speak fluent French?
Zebo: Well, I wouldn't say I'm exactly fluent, but I can speak it well. And the kids are starting in an all-French school in September.
Simon Zebo with his partner Elvira and his children Jacob, Noah and Sofia in Paris
They have Spanish too with their mother being from Spain. They have a few French words already, but going to an all-French school now will be great for them.
Tomás: Your dad, Arthur, sounds like a character. Is your own experience growing up the type of thing you're trying to replicate for your own children now? That it's good craic as much as anything?
Zebo: That's it exactly. I'm trying to do the exact same thing with my kids, just to have a very active relationship with them and make it as much fun as possible. To create as many good memories as possible.
Because in fairness to my parents, we didn't want for anything growing up. They always took us to the park, played with us.
You can name any sport and I was playing it. And they were at every single game. So you're just trying to get that kind of bond and our kids are at a really fun age. My son is five now, so they're just unbelievable craic.
It's the best part of the day, getting home after training and just playing games with them.
Tomás: I never realised that your dad was close enough to competing at the Montreal Olympics in 1976?
Zebo: Yeah, he had qualified. He used to run the 800 metres and his personal best would have been serious. He came over to Paris to do his service in the army for Martinique at 19 and he was training for the Olympics at the same time.
But he was parachuting one day as part of the army training and he just blew out his knee on impact. Pulled the chord too late or whatever.
You know a 15-metre difference can be huge on impact, but the injured knee then meant he couldn't compete. It's a shame, but he never really talks about it. I'd say it probably still stings him a little bit.
Like he wouldn't have been near a medal or anything, but he could have made a final if he ran his best time. Which would have been mega.
But yeah it's cool, he'd be at the forefront of why me and my sister (Jessika) played so many sports.
Tomás: Our dad never pressured us when we were young, but the football was all we had. You had such a wide range of sports growing up, how was he as an influence? Did he push ye hard?
Zebo: No, he'd never push us too hard. But his mentality was always to encourage us to play every sport. My mother (Lynda) as well.
It was a case of 'just go out and enjoy it'. Their attitude was that as long as we were happy, then we were playing the right sport.
Like both of them would have come to all of my games but, if I played poorly, there was never much made of the fact.
It would never be a case of 'You need to train harder'. If anything, they might even just make a joke about it. So I was very much allowed follow my own path in terms of what I wanted to do and I'll always be grateful for that.
Tomás: The impression I have of you is of a bit of a joker and I often think I'd love to have been like that when I was playing. To have been able to chill out before a game. Were you always like that? Or maybe I'm wrong and you get worked up?
Zebo: It's funny, sometimes if you have huge games coming up and lads are going the extra mile, of course you do all of that. But when it comes to the mental side of things, it doesn't matter the size of the game or the pressure it involves.
It's still a game at the end of the day. And when I'm going out to enjoy myself, that's when I play my best, whether it's hurling, football, soccer . . . it doesn't matter.
When I'm relaxed and at ease, that's when I play my best. But I understand that everybody's different, so I don't try to impose my character on people at the wrong times! (laughing).
Tomás: I was just going to ask you that. Does anyone ever say to you, 'Would you ever shut to f**k up?!'
Zebo: Oh God yeah, all the time (laughing). I'd say every second match nearly. Someone like Peter O'Mahony . . . he's been giving out to me for nearly 20-odd years playing rugby. He'd probably walk the other way when he'd see me coming on a matchday!
Then you'd have some fellas who'd be similar to me, just looking to stay relaxed and not let occasions get to them. But then obviously you've the other fellas banging their heads off a wall, which is a bit funny.
Tomás: I remember you playing a game once and, coming up to half-time, you could be heard roaring at Conor Murray to kick it dead as if time was up, when it actually wasn't. And, seeing Murray's expression when he realised, I was just thinking 'Jesus, that man's some messer!'
Zebo: That's one of my favourite memories on a rugby pitch actually. Just to see the look on his face after he had done it. He had his hands apart . . . as if asking God what was he supposed to do.
He got cursed out of it at half-time then, which made it even better! But yeah, telling him to kick it out when it wasn't half-time was good. He still hasn't let me live that down, still says he owes me one. It was very funny.
Tomás: Can I bring you back to your young days, playing hurling with Blackrock and football with Michael's, you played at a pretty high standard. Did you play in three féile football teams?
Zebo: I was picked for three I think, but I got injured and didn't make all three. Definitely played two.
Tomás: And you were very competitive in athletics too?
Zebo: Yeah, I medalled at All-Ireland level in athletics plenty of times, more so in my early days. But, throughout the teenage years then, with the buzz around rugby games and hurling and Gaelic, things went up a notch.
Athletics always struggled for crowds and that didn't really suit me. You know it's a lonely sport as well. In the end, I suppose, I was kind of sticking at it for my dad, but it helped me to compete in other sports too.
I was very open-minded about what I played, but I knew sports was where I wanted to go in terms of a career. I just wasn't sure until 16 or 17 which sport it would be.
Growing up, I was still literally trying to figure out which sport I was best at. But in the end, maybe it wasn't even about which sport I was best at. Schools rugby in Cork, especially in Pres and Christians . . . that buzz really attracted me to the game. Then you had Munster's success while I was in school, another big factor.
Tomás: So when did you actually start off playing rugby?
Zebo: When I was six or seven in Cork Con. Then my first three years at Pres were quite relaxed in rugby terms. We were playing competitive games in front of big crowds come finals time, but it still wasn't something that had me seriously thinking: 'This is the job that I want!'
It was only in fourth and fifth year that the buzz really started to get big. Munster were going really well and all my friends seemed to be talking about every day was rugby.
We were watching it morning, noon and night, trying to emulate these fellas in matches. And that's when I decided to stick with it I suppose, which, thankfully, was probably the right decision.
Tomás: Everybody still talks about a unique culture in Munster rugby, is it much different with Racing?
Zebo: Yeah, it's very different. I'm not going to say one's better than the other, but there'd definitely be more slagging and stuff like that back in Munster.
The ethos in Munster would be hard work and discipline and you'd live that Monday to Sunday almost. Every day of the week, that's the kind of mindset that's built up down there. It's incredibly effective and a really great environment to be in.
Racing is totally different. It's a dressing-room filled with international players from all over the world. There are so many stars on the team, it's almost like a dream team - so many good players it's frightening. I suppose you wouldn't be having the same craic because there could be two Fijians one side of you, an Australian on the other. A Georgian fella over there. A Scottish fella here. It's all over the place in that respect.
Like we have squad barbecues all the time; drinks around people's houses; family days for the kids. That's how they build the culture, a real family culture. It's a very good environment to be in.
Tomás: It's no real surprise that you've adjusted so well to life in Paris but, of course, Donnacha Ryan is there too. Now if I was asked to describe a quintessential Munster player, it would be him. And I can't honestly picture Donnacha ever wanting to go into an art gallery or the like. Yet he's been a huge success over there. Has his presence made it easier for you to settle?
Zebo: Yeah, 100 per cent. Donnacha's exactly how you describe him, a country boy, but he's got his head screwed on. He's well able to adapt to any situation and he's fitted in so well over here. To be honest, he's probably the first name down on the team-sheet because he's playing incredibly well. And he's a huge leader within the squad. So it's great that I had spent so many years with him back at Munster. We have a great relationship and, believe me, our craic that we brought from Munster still lives on.
We have it among ourselves and with some of the other foreign lads. Thankfully, we've introduced a few boys to Munster-style slagging.
Tomás: In Kerry, we used call it 'black magic', this kind of craic that other people mightn't find funny at all. Things could be said that might even seem hurtful to outsiders. Do you find that there are things you simply couldn't say there that you'd get away with in Munster?
Zebo: Ah yeah, no chance. You can't slag any of the French lads, that's for sure. They're too sensitive and they actually get properly offended if you make some remark about their clothing or a haircut, anything like that. It's bizarre. They're a different breed over here, but funny all the same.
Tomás: You're obviously enjoying life in Paris, but is there any one thing you miss most about Munster? Is it that banter?
Zebo: Ah, I'd miss a lot of the faces obviously and the relationships I had back home. But I think the number one thing would be Thomond Park on a Saturday evening for a big Champions Cup game. That's incredibly special. Scoring a try or playing an unbelievable game at Thomond Park is pretty hard to match.
Tomás: I see a picture directly behind you of your kids. That's in Thomond I presume?
Zebo: Yeah, that's one of my last games there so, yeah, it stays with me.
Tomás: Did anyone try to stop you leaving Munster?
Zebo: To be fair, yeah, there was a lot of effort made. We had very open conversations. The dialogue was good so nobody felt hurt or anything. It was just very honest.
It just came that we split. But like Rassie (Erasmus) was coach at the time and he just understood. The same with the CEO, Garret Fitzgerald. It was just time.
Yeah, they tried to stop me, there was a really good relationship there. I'll always love Munster. I'm sure it's the same for you and Kerry. So never say never. It just came to pass at that particular time that this was meant to be.
Tomás: I remember being in New York the night before Ireland played the All Blacks in Chicago. Was that game as good as it got for you? The whole thing with the tribute to Anthony Foley and that, it just seemed that something really special was happening?
Zebo: Yeah, that whole week was magic. The favourite week of my career without a shadow of a doubt. We were going into the game with a little bit of the pressure off because we weren't playing at home.
It being in Chicago, I suppose it was a bit bizarre for everyone too, the All Blacks included.
Both teams arrived in the city about 10 days before and we just had the most incredible week. We ended up having lots of time off with each other and got to really enjoy the city.
There was downtime every day, so we got to see all the sights. And there was just so much craic that week. The Chicago Cubs were in the World Series at the time and, the night before our match, they won for the first time in 109 years.
So the atmosphere in the city was insane when that happened. But all week too really.
For us to win our game then, beating the All Blacks for the first time, it was an absolute roller-coaster of emotions. An incredible week.
Tomás: I've always been fascinated by the concept of the Lions, where you go from hammering into the English, Scots and Welsh to touring with these guys as team-mates. Is that a huge challenge? Like is the spirit of the Lions genuine?
Zebo: For sure, that's a big challenge. But in 2013, it was quite good. Look, if there's a fella in your position, you're definitely going out trying to make him look bad in training. So there's that real competitive edge to training. But at the same time, there's a lot of bonding in the early weeks of the tour especially, nights out and that, loads of meals together, lots of squad activity.
Although everybody wants to play, there is a real unity that builds up really quickly too. And when you pull on that shirt, you realise all the history that goes into it. So the unity is genuine, no question.
You just feel you have this chance to do something incredibly special that only comes around every four years. And we were lucky enough to win in Australia, which was incredible. So the boys bought in 100 per cent. But that ends very fast once you get home. I found the experience really good.
Tomás: The craic on those tours must be something else?
Zebo: It's mad (laughing). And it's the craic together that you remember. I was talking about this to a few lads the other day.
We were saying: 'If your career ended today, what is it you'd remember?' Of course, you remember the matches and the big days, but it's the memories off the pitch more so.
Like, we remember tours by nights out that we had. By great memories had off the pitch. One of the great things about rugby is that there's a good balance between work and fun.
Tomás: It strikes me personally as foolish this IRFU policy that a player contracted abroad is not considered for selection with Ireland. Surely if you're good enough, you should be playing?
Zebo: Yeah, yeah, 100 per cent. I don't agree with the rule obviously because it affected me. But I don't think you should be denied the right to play for your country just because you're not playing at home. If you're good enough. And it's not like I've gone to New Zealand. Like, my time's probably gone now but for other players in the future . . . to be told you can't leave the country or you won't play for Ireland . . . I just don't agree with it.
You know, rugby's a short career. And to deny players the opportunity to gain life experiences or play for other teams and still have that pride and honour of playing for your country . . . I just don't agree with taking that away from players. It's a tricky one and it may change in the future.
It doesn't seem to affect other sports as much, so you never know. But, yeah, it's definitely annoying.
Tomás: One thing I always love when watching you is the sense that nobody knows what you're going to do next. You play rugby off the cuff, attack the game as you see it.
Do you think that cost you Irish caps? I know you've spoken glowingly about Joe Schmidt, but he did seem tactically very rigid.
Zebo: It definitely did. Joe's a great coach and everything, but my style of play doesn't suit him obviously. I play with an element of risk I suppose.
I'm not carefree, but I'm willing to take risks and, with the style that we were playing under Joe, it wasn't a good match, that's for sure. So it's frustrating yeah, but it is what it is.
Tomás: Do you think that ship has sailed for you now or would you still hold out hope of playing for Ireland?
Zebo: Well, in my head, if I'm playing well, you know there should be no reason . . . it'll be interesting now with the season coming up if, say, I was nominated for European Player of the Year or something like that or if I was carving up in Europe, to see what might happen.
Probably nothing, you know. But just to leave the door a little bit ajar maybe and hopefully I can start the season well and see what happens. And there's a new coach there as well so you never know. But if I moved back to Ireland, then 100 per cent I'd definitely expect to be in the mix.
Tomás: I have to ask you about racism in sport, Simon. I'm a teacher and I even see it at school, which I find shocking. A lot of GAA players have been coming out about abuse they've taken, the likes of Lee Chin now or Jason Sherlock in the past.
You faced some of it I know in your youth and I know you're a strong personality, but surely it affects you when you hear something?
Zebo: Yeah, absolutely. Especially when I was younger and didn't know how to deal with it. Being called the 'N'-word and things like that by some idiots who might be hanging around in gangs in a park. I certainly came across stuff like that growing up.
But then when it came into the sporting world, playing hurling, playing football, playing soccer . . . the more it used happen, the more aggressive I would get about it.
Confrontational even. You know, I didn't really understand. I just knew that they were trying to insult me like. Trying to embarrass me or mock me in front of people. And I took offence. It would affect me completely differently now. But I definitely got a few red cards playing hurling and football games because of it. It's sad that it's still going on.
It's particularly sad when you see what's happening in the States. But you see the reaction from everybody around the world, white people included, there's a real coming together on this. And, hopefully, one day, it might be eradicated. Maybe not in my lifetime, but it's about time it was. Because it's nonsense. I have no time for it. Just zero tolerance.
Tomás: My own view is that we're not doing enough in terms of education at a young age. I mean, there's a lot of it even within our own parishes. I think it's disgusting. My belief is that it should be a part of the school curriculum, it seems just such a basic thing.
Zebo: I agree, 100 per cent. People need to be far more conscious of this and maybe start having awkward conversations with their kids. You know, educational conversations from an early age. You're starting to see more diverse communities all over Ireland, so I really hope that people do start to get educated.
Because something does need to change in the psyche all around the world. There's not one person of colour or from any race in Ireland that I talk to who hasn't personal experience with racism. And that's really sad. So change definitely needs to happen and sooner rather than later.
Tomás: Are you someone who sets themselves targets for the season?
Zebo: I'd be more of 'let's go with the flow' sort of person. But there's a good ambition around the club for a Champions Cup at the moment. The president really wants to get that first star on the jersey, as do all the players. So I think the Champions Cup would be the main goal.
Tomás: I'd say if ye did win it, all the boys from Blackrock would be over to that nightclub you call 'Boom Boom'?
Zebo: I'll have to get you over as well (laughing). You'd be in there with Neymar, (Kylian) Mbappe. It's crazy, an incredible place. But I'm only there once in the blue moon now.
The boss is clamping down on me!
Tomás Ó Sé talks to AP McCoy
In the third part of this interview series the legendary jockey talks about his driven personality, his unbreakable will to win and life after racing.