No in­ner con­flict for Zebo

Pop­u­lar fig­ure at club is de­ter­mined to end time at Mun­ster by claim­ing some sil­ver­ware this sea­son

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thorn­ley

At face value it might look like a strange one. Si­mon Zebo will to­mor­row line out for Mun­ster against Racing 92 in the lat­ter’s new U Arena, which will also be his new home next sea­son. But if any­body can take such an oc­ca­sion in his stride, it is the laid-back 27-year-old. There will cer­tainly be no in­ner con­flict.

Zebo, en­gag­ingly as ever, af­forded The Ir­ish Times half an hour of his time last Tues­day at Mun­ster’s High Per­for­mance Cen­tre in the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick in the full knowl­edge that Racing would be con­firm­ing his move there later that af­ter­noon.

While it was a lit­tle cheeky of Racing to run a full in­ter­view with him on their web­site, they were fully en­ti­tled to make the an­nounce­ment when they saw fit.

Mun­ster knew it was com­ing that af­ter­noon as well, and he’d told his team­mates last Novem­ber that Racing was his next club. Ian Keat­ley even joked pub­licly on Tues­day about their in­ten­tion to “send Zebo over there with two losses”.

Zebo ac­tu­ally shares that de­sire. He’s an Ar­se­nal fan, and says he’d pay money to watch Me­sut Ozil play any day. But Sun­day’s game is not akin to Alexis Sanchez play­ing against Manch­ester City.

“This [Mun­ster] is my fam­ily. Mun­ster rugby is ev­ery­thing to me. Racing is noth­ing to me as of now, and Racing won’t mean any­thing to me un­til I ar­rive into the train­ing fa­cil­ity. Hope­fully we go out and ham­mer them to a pulp this week­end and I’ll score a lash of tries. That’s what I want to hap­pen.

“What’s hap­pen­ing in the fu­ture is down the road, and I’m as fo­cused and de­ter­mined as ever to play my best for Mun­ster and end the sea­son on a high.”

Fur­ther­more, his rep­re­sen­ta­tives had been in ne­go­ti­a­tions be­fore the sides’ first meet­ing at Thomond Park in Oc­to­ber, which didn’t di­min­ish his de­sire one iota, and if any­thing, his de­ci­sion to leave has strength­ened Zebo’s re­solve to make his ninth sea­son with his na­tive prov­ince more mem­o­rable.

“It kind of scares me a lit­tle that I only have a hand­ful of games with Mun­ster [left]. I grew up dream­ing of play­ing with them, and to think that it’s com­ing to an end is sad.

“I’ve al­ways tried to en­joy my rugby as much as pos­si­ble and play with a smile on my face, but this sea­son I feel there’s that ex­tra bit of pres­sure on us to win some­thing and for me per­son­ally to per­form be­cause I don’t want to leave empty handed.”

In­cred­i­ble highs

Like Peter O’Mahony, a team-mate from Cork Con un­der­age as well as PBC sides, and Conor Mur­ray, Zebo was amongst the crowd at the Mil­len­nium Sta­dium in 2006 when trav­el­ling over with his un­cle, Neil Geary, to see Mun­ster reach their Holy Grail with that win over Biar­ritz.

He ad­mits he’s had many, in­cred­i­ble highs since with Mun­ster, in­nu­mer­able wins on the road or in Lim­er­ick and Cork, stud­ded with a record 58 tries in 133 games and count­ing. More than the mem­o­ries have been the friend­ships.

“I’ve friends for life with Mun­ster. That’s the best thing I’d take away from it.”

But ask him about the low points and he im­me­di­ately cites “the lack of sil­ver­ware”.

“The most im­por­tant thing is win­ning, and we’ve got a group of play­ers who have been to­gether for a long time and there’s al­ways been a case of ‘next year’ or ‘we’re get­ting there’, but that’s just not good enough. This year is ev­ery­thing to us and hope­fully this trans­lates into our per­for­mances at the busi­ness end of the sea­son, be­cause it means a lot to me per­son­ally and for all the boys in the squad. We don’t want it to be an­other ‘next year’ con­ver­sa­tion at the end of the sea­son.”

Not least as there won’t be an­other next sea­son for Zebo as things stand.

But why leave Mun­ster, and why Racing?

“There’s so much around it, I could chat to you for hours, but the main rea­son was that it was prob­a­bly the right time to go. My kids are at an age where min­i­mal stress was put on them by mov­ing,” he ex­plained, in ref­er­ence to Ja­cob (who turns three in May) and Sofia (who will be two in Au­gust).

“It was the right club, the right deal and the right place, with fam­ily around me, and I’ve al­ways wanted to play in the Top 14. I could have waited an­other two or three years, but when I weighed ev­ery­thing up it was just the right time to pull the trig­ger.

“Not a lot of peo­ple would leave what I have in Ire­land to try a new be­gin­ning and new chal­lenge, but it was al­ways some­thing I wanted to do and life is too short not to take chances. I am ex­cited by it but in a lot of ways it will be very sad leav­ing Mun­ster. I’m not look­ing for­ward to that day.”

It’s also a de­ci­sion that was fully sup­ported by his wife, Elvira, who her­self has re­lo­cated from Spain and com­pleted a law de­gree in UCC, and his par­ents, Lynda and Arthur.

As well as be­ing a di­rect flight to and from Dublin, he has ex­tended fam­ily in Paris, in­clud­ing aunts, un­cles and three cousins, and friends there from reg­u­lar fam­ily vis­its to the city. In all of this Zebo, as ever, has re­mained true to him­self. He’s also re­main­ing true to his Ir­ish-French roots.

Dream­stuff

Arthur hailed from Mar­tinique, from where he moved to Paris when he was 19 to do his mil­i­tary ser­vice. A bro­ken leg when parachute train­ing pre­vented him from com­pet­ing in the 800m at the Mon­treal Olympics in 1976.

“I grew up watch­ing Cedric Hay­mans, Vin­cent Clerc, Christophe Do­minici and Frederic Micha­lak, all these play­ers, when they were play­ing dream stuff down in Toulouse,” says Zebo.

“These were the guys I was try­ing to em­u­late as well as Rog [O’Gara] and Dougie [Howlett]. It was re­ally French rugby that in­flu­enced the way I tried to play the game as a kid, and the way I still try to play.”

Lynda met Arthur while vis­it­ing Paris with a friend when study­ing French. He brought her to a club where he was DJ, play­ing Bob Mar­ley and a range of reg­gae and hip hop.

“My dad was 27 and my mum was 19,” says Zebo smil­ing.

When she brought Arthur home to Cork to meet her par­ents, Breda and John Geary, he wore a white tuxedo with a black top hat.

“He was try­ing to im­press,” says Zebo, now laugh­ing. “My grand­dad nearly had a heart at­tack. Ap­par­ently it was hi­lar­i­ous. He was prob­a­bly the only black man in the coun­try, never mind show­ing up at my grand­fa­ther’s steps in a white tuxedo. He didn’t have a word of English at the time ei­ther.”

His dad spoke French while Zebo and his sis­ter, Jes­sika, were grow­ing up in Cork, mostly when he was giv­ing out to them or when he was cook­ing. There were also an­nual hol­i­days to France or Mar­tinique, with Arthur’s nine broth­ers and sis­ters split be­tween the two coun­tries.

“At home dad would be watch­ing French TV, and French rugby or soc­cer. I wasn’t great at French in the Leav­ing Cert. Gram­mat­i­cally I’d be poor, but I’d have no prob­lem in con­ver­sa­tion, and if I was over there for a few months I’d be per­fectly flu­ent.”

Luck­ily for Zebo he also in­her­ited his dad’s speed. This was ini­tially ap­plied to Gaelic games and foot­ball, but a for­mer Mun­ster player, Char­lie Mur­phy, who owns a garage in Black­rock where Zebo grew up, de­manded that Zebo se­nior let his son try rugby in Cork Con. He was six.

“It was love at first sight,” says Zebo, “and ever since then I’ve been on the same team as Peter [O’Mahony] since we were tod­dlers. I loved sidestep­ping him and run­ning around him when we were young.”

From there, through PBC, it was the same. By the age of nine he knew he had tal­ent.

“No­body could touch me at un­der­age rugby,” he says, smil­ing, and not in a re­motely con­ceited way. “Ask Pete. They’d throw the ball to me and I’d run around ev­ery­body. When you get con­fi­dent as a young fella, you think you’re in­vin­ci­ble, and you can do ev­ery­thing. What­ever the level, I felt very com­fort­able. Noth­ing fazed me as a young fella.

“From a young age I al­ways thought this was go­ing to be my job, and I’d no Plan B. My par­ents used to al­ways say you need a Plan B, but you can’t go 100 per cent at Plan A if you’re think­ing about Plan B, and I was go­ing 100 per cent at Plan A. Thank­fully it worked out.”

He made his Mun­ster de­but away to Con­nacht in April 2010, hav­ing just turned 20, re­ceiv­ing a yel­low card when Alain Rol­land deemed an at­tempted in­ter­cept was a de­lib­er­ate knock on.

“And un­til Le­ices­ter last year, it was my only one,” he re­calls, laugh­ing. “I’m an angel. I’m a good boy on the pitch.”

Barely two years later, Declan Kid­ney gave Zebo his Ir­ish de­but, against the All Blacks at Eden Park.

“It was sur­real. I ac­tu­ally had a poster of the All Blacks do­ing the haka in my room as a kid, above my bed. An in­cred­i­ble experience; my first cap against them at Eden Park, get­ting to play against Sonny Bill, Is­rael Dagg and all those guys.”

There have been 35 caps for Ire­land, and nine tries.

“The high would be beat­ing the All Blacks in Chicago. That’s num­ber one, and win­ning the Six Na­tions [in 2015] and my first cap.”

Low point

The low point? “Not play­ing in the World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal.”

Zebo started at full­back in the vic­to­ries over Romania (with three try-scor­ing as­sists) and Italy, be­fore be­ing left out of the group de­cider against France and that quar­ter-fi­nal against Ar­gentina.

“That didn’t sit well with me,” he ad­mits. “I’ll never for­get that. I thought I de­served to play and I was dis­ap­pointed at the se­lec­tion. That would def­i­nitely be my low point, but the highs def­i­nitely out­weigh the lows with Ire­land.”

He’s aware that de­cid­ing to join Racing puts his Ir­ish ca­reer at risk.

“If the worst was to hap­pen and I wasn’t to play again for Ire­land then I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I’d be able to ac­cept it. I had to make a de­ci­sion, around what was best for my fam­ily, and want­ing to play in the Top 14.

“But I still get un­be­liev­able pride singing the an­them and run­ning out in a green shirt. Since I was a tod­dler I’ve been watch­ing Ir­ish games and play­ers, and wanted to play in an Ir­ish jersey.

“As long as I’m play­ing I’d ab­so­lutely love to play for Ire­land.”

Zebo has the se­cu­rity of a three-year deal with Racing, with the op­tion of leav­ing af­ter two, so he’s un­der­stand­ably re­luc­tant to say he’s gone for good or that he’ll re­turn.

“I could re­ally en­joy play­ing with Racing, and flour­ish in the Top 14, play­ing ex­pan­sive rugby and try­ing to ex­press my­self as much as pos­si­ble with the shack­les off, and re­ally em­brac­ing the life­style and the cul­ture. I could see my­self loving it so much and want­ing to stay there an ex­tra cou­ple of years.

“But on the other hand my love for Mun­ster could def­i­nitely bring me back. I’ve an in­cred­i­ble con­nec­tion with the sup­port­ers around Mun­ster. All my best friends in rugby play with Mun­ster, and it would be a dream to come back and play in front of my home fans, be­cause Mun­ster is home to me and al­ways will be.”

Yer­rah, he’ll be back. And he’s not gone yet.

From a young age I al­ways thought this was go­ing to be my job, and I’d no Plan B. My par­ents used to al­ways say you need a Plan B, but you can’t go 100 per cent at Plan A if you’re think­ing about Plan B, and I was go­ing 100 per cent at Plan A. Thank­fully it worked out If the worst was to hap­pen and I wasn’t to play again for Ire­land then I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I’d be able to ac­cept it

PAUL FAITH/AFP/GETTY PHO­TO­GRAPH:

Si­mon Zebo in ac­tion against to­mor­row’s op­po­nents (and his fu­ture em­ploy­ers) Racing ’92 dur­ing Mun­ster’s 14-7 win over the French side at Thomond Park in Oc­to­ber.

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