Busi­ness to fin­ish be­fore wing takes flight

For­mer Ire­land star en­joyed low-key birth­day while Slam cel­e­bra­tions raged

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

AS a mea­sure of how capri­cious and cruel sport can be, con­sider the case of Simon Zebo. Over the last few sea­sons he has been a nailed-on mem­ber of the Ire­land match-day squad. Given that Joe Sch­midt was not the hon­orary sec­re­tary of the Simon Zebo fan club, this re­flected well both on his abil­ity as a rugby player and his will­ing­ness to con­form to what the coach de­manded. It’s a bit sim­plis­tic, but in a nut­shell Sch­midt wanted Zebo to look more like he was about to break out in a rash than tak­ing time to chill.

So, in 2015 Zebo started four of Ire­land’s Six Na­tions games and fea­tured in three World Cup matches. In 2016 he played in an­other four Cham­pi­onship Tests, three as a starter, round­ing off the year with a try in the his­toric win over New Zealand in Chicago. In 2017 he started all five Six Na­tions games. And in 2018 he was in Rossini’s restau­rant on Cork’s Princes Street as the Cham­pagne corks were pop­ping in Twick­en­ham.

It’s a toss-up which im­age would be more plain­tive: the sight of him play­ing for Mun­ster on the Fri­day night in front of three Mur­ray­field men and a dog; or the Satur­day after­noon scene where he was ‘cel­e­brat­ing’ his 28th birth­day with a fam­ily lunch. The Grand Slam game was on the telly in the back­ground.

“Half-watch­ing it, half-cel­e­brat­ing it,” he says. “It wasn’t too busy, thank­fully. It was dead.

“It wasn’t re­ally a big birth­day to be hon­est, it was just: ‘we’ll got out for lunch’. But the game was on and all the staff and all the wait­ers were watch­ing and you’d obviously look in to check on the score. Thank­fully my kids were run­ning around, keep­ing me busy so I didn’t get to fo­cus too much on the cel­e­brat­ing or the lift­ing of the tro­phy.”

If it’s an ab­so­lute banker in sport that you want the man you get dropped for to have the worst game in his­tory, then it’s in the same ball­park to stick nee­dles in your eyes rather than watch cel­e­bra­tions that don’t in­clude you. For any com­pet­i­tive, wounded an­i­mal, that’s tor­ture.

And of course this is self-in­flicted. If Zebo hadn’t an­nounced his de­par­ture for Rac­ing 92 then you’d won­der if Ja­cob Stock­dale’s ca­reer path would have been such a sprint. What­ever, Zebo is re­signed to hav­ing played his last in green for the fore­see­able. Maybe it’s a defence mech­a­nism that stops him from hop­ing, but our clear un­der­stand­ing is that if it suits Joe Sch­midt to in­clude Simon Zebo in the World Cup squad next year then that’s what he’ll do.

The de facto rule en­forced by Sch­midt is un­writ­ten with good rea­son. He can, and will, suit him­self when it comes to putting to­gether the best squad for Ja­pan. So if Zebo’s form is top qual­ity and the coach wants him then it’s a done deal.

“Yeah, hope­fully,” Zebo says. “Es­pe­cially the way that rugby’s played over there [France]. They’ve a nice in­door track. Hope­fully I’ll get some fast ball . . . But no, I’m very ex­cited by the chal­lenge and if I’m play­ing well, then hope­fully there’ll be a bit of clam­our to get me in! But I don’t think that re­ally mat­ters. I’ve been play­ing well this sea­son in the big games and it [Ire­land] didn’t come, so. . .”

He says he has made his peace with it but it sounds like a frag­ile set­tle­ment. In any case there is other stuff for Zebo to sort. Like Mun­ster pick­ing up their form from that de­feat in Ed­in­burgh last week­end — fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion they are reg­u­larly get­ting lost on the road — to the re­quired level of the Cham­pi­ons Cup, against Toulon. Which thank­fully is in Thomond Park. Toulon may not be the same three-in-a-row vin­tage that made them un­touch­able in Europe from 2013-2015, but they are still heavy hit­ters.

“They’ve a lot of big-game ex­pe­ri­ence and some in­cred­i­ble ath­letes,” he says. “I think they’re prob­a­bly a lit­tle bit un­der pres­sure after their start to the sea­son but they’ve got a big block of games com­ing up with Cler­mont, us, and then two top-ofthe-table clashes after that. Un­for­tu­nately for us, they’re singing at the right time so we know the chal­lenge that’s ahead of us.

“In terms of their backs, [Semi] Radradra has been on fire lately. Any time he touches the ball he seems to be mak­ing line-breaks. [Malakai] Fek­i­toa, [Hugo] Bon­neval. And Chris Ash­ton is scor­ing a freak­ish num­ber of tries. The big thing with us would be stop­ping their for­ward mo­men­tum be­cause if they get quick ball and we’re not able to come off the line too hard, then we’re in trou­ble be­cause they’ve got so many threats in their back­line. Their squad, is very, very im­pres­sive.”

Zebo’s run-in with Mun­ster is turn­ing into some­thing of a long good­bye, which is not ideal, but how good would it be to see him fly off with some sil­ver­ware in his carry-on lug­gage? He is never done talking about the priv­i­lege of play­ing for Mun­ster, but it was al­ways in his head that he would one day fea­ture for some­one else as well. As in some­one French.

He got the sports gene from his dad,

It was al­ways in Zebo’s head that he would one day fea­ture for some­one else, some­one French

Arthur, who grew up in Mar­tinique. A tal­ented ath­lete, he was plan­ning on the 800m at the Mon­treal Olympics but for a para­chute jump gone wrong when do­ing his French mil­i­tary ser­vice. The son has al­ways been in touch with his French roots.

“Mas­sive, yeah. It’s been a big part of my rugby since I was a kid, since I’ve been fol­low­ing rugby and play­ing at a pro­fes­sional level. It’s the way I like to play the game — that kind of flair as­pect of the game, play­ing with no fear, play what you see. It’s had a big im­pact, prob­a­bly off the field as well with my time-keep­ing. My fam­ily tend to be quite bad for that kind of stuff . . . that’s my French side.

“My ear­li­est mem­o­ries are prob­a­bly Six Na­tions: [Christophe] Do­minici, [Philippe] Ber­nat-Salles, [Yan­nick] Jauzion, all these guys, Cedric Hey­mans, Vin­cent Clerc. They were all my idols grow­ing up. For about a decade, they were un­touch­able in Europe — just the way they played, their back­line, they were just fright­en­ing, the way they ran off each other, their off­loads. As a kid, that was the way I wanted to play the game, too.”

He has been guided by the prin­ci­ple that it’s bet­ter to try, and maybe miss the mark, than not to see the tar­get at all. Whether it was on the hurl­ing field or do­ing school­work, his dad would tell him not to get hung up on mak­ing mis­takes. Just have a go. So while he ap­pre­ci­ates the struc­ture that gov­erns much of pro­fes­sional rugby his pulse quick­ens at the prospect of get­ting out­side it. So when it’s 3 v 3 and some­thing needs to hap­pen to change the pic­ture, Zebo switches on.

“The hard part — and the part that in­ter­ests me most — is phase play, where you’re 20 phases in, how are you go­ing to break down the defence when there’s no help? You’re not be­ing told what to do then. That’s when I have my most fun, try­ing to break down de­fences when you’re not told what to do by coaches.

“The struc­ture be­fore that is fine be­cause you know: ‘this is where the space is’ or ‘this is how we think we can break them down’, but if that doesn’t work, you need to be able to break them down with­out some­one hold­ing their hand. That’s what in­ter­ests me the most. It’s not that I dis­like the struc­ture. It’s just the easy part of the game. I view rugby as a game to be played for en­joy­ment. I en­joy my rugby the most when I play off the cuff.”

We’re not al­to­gether sure that the un­re­lent­ing biff of the Top 14 is the per­fect stu­dio for an artist to be dis­play­ing his work. It’s ironic that Sch­midt cited Zebo’s form against Rac­ing in Paris in Jan­uary as the rea­son for pick­ing Jor­dan Lar­mour ahead of him in the Six Na­tions. It was in re­sponse to Zebo go­ing on the record about the strug­gle of ex­press­ing your­self un­der the Sch­midt struc­ture. Doesn’t sound like they are besties, does it?

All of which must have run through Zebo’s mind when push­ing the food around his plate at lunchtime last Satur­day. De­spite the op­tics, his Ire­land ca­reer doesn’t have to be over. And his Mun­ster one has a bit to run as well.

‘Thank­fully my kids were run­ning around, keep­ing me busy, so I didn’t get to fo­cus too much on the cel­e­brat­ing or the lift­ing of the tro­phy’

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