There was a time when Simon Zebo saw the game in which he excels quite differently to the coaches whose job description it was to win matches and keep opponents at bay. By the Munster star’s own admission, getting stuck in at breakdowns interfered with the business of being brilliant and it was costing him Ireland caps.
While Zebo’s mercurial talents in the back three were considered indispensable in his province, the perception was they were a luxury Joe Schmidt would happily do without at Test level if the head coach had a full selection of back three options at his disposal.
Which means Zebo, first capped in 2012, saw no action during the 2014 Six Nations Championship-winning campaign and, having played in the first four matches of 2015, was replaced by Luke Fitzgerald for the decider in Scotland. There was vindication, of course, in the silverware that accrued in Zebo’s absence and, when the World Cup in England rolled around, the Munster man impressed at full-back against Romania and Italy but found himself overlooked once more in the games that mattered, against France and Argentina, when Rob Kearney regained fitness.
Some players might have turned their backs on flair and begun conforming to industry standards. Zebo, though, is different. Firmly believing there was no need to abandon his instinctive approach, he simply added the necessary steel and work-rate to his silky skill set.
This season has seen the 26-year-old in outstanding form for Munster and Ireland, both on the wing and at full-back, and none more impressively than against New Zealand in Chicago when his willingness to gamble rather than take the conservative option late in the game saw him launch his big left boot upfield and turn safety-first defence into history-clinching attack.
“I feel my game has come up another couple of notches,” Zebo said this week as he prepared for today’s Champions Cup rematch with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road.
“I think that comes with age. I feel old now and I’m still only 26 but it’s probably a different outlook on the game or a maturity or something.
“I don’t know what it is but there are different little areas that I have worked on and see differently and I’m improving on. So I’m happy that it’s coming out on the pitch and I’m playing well, so I just keep on doing what I’m doing.
“I suppose a couple of years ago my outlook on rugby would have been a bit different and I had to adapt. I still obviously believe wingers and full-backs are made to score tries and have to score tries and do brilliant things and that’s what I pride myself on, that’s what I want to be able to give to a team. But there are other areas like breakdown, which I’ve improved on, tackle technique and all these little areas that you have to keep on improving to be the complete all-round player. There’s no player in the world who’s the complete player but it’s something every player in the world strives for and I’m on course to becoming the player I want to be.”
It is an ongoing process, as Zebo acknowledges, but he has already come a long way in the last two years.
“I wouldn’t have given a massive importance to breakdown, say, for example, I would have concentrated more solely on impacting on the team on special moments. But the little (moments) are just as important for the collective.
“That’s something I’ve adapted and learned and improved on and continue to improve on and hopefully when I’m in my prime at 28 or 29 then I’ll be a different player again from the one I am today. There’s always room for improvement and hopefully I will continue to improve.”
It is clear the current version is agreeable to Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, who cherishes having Zebo on his roster and enjoyed his return from international duty last weekend, which featured a sparkling finish, taking a blind pass on Conor Murray’s inside from five metres out.
“He can score a try out of nothing,” the South African said this week. “He brings a vibe to the team, a confidence to the team and sometimes when nothing is on he creates something which is encouraging to do because you can’t always rely on coaching and systems and plans to score tries. Sometimes it is only individual brilliance that scores a try. Like (Manu) Tuilagi with (Leicester), that’s the kind of players you play against, but it always nice to get a player of his quality back in the team, not just for his on-field work but he also has a vibe about him.”
Zebo’s mission to improve will not cause him to abandon his principles, a point once reinforced by former Munster team elder Ronan O’Gara and now by Erasmus. “That’s where I want my game to be and I feel it’s getting very close and I want to be there,” Zebo said. “One of the things that Rog used always say to me was never lose the brilliance or doing special things.
“That’s something I never want to lose or curb that kind of ambition or the risk-taking ability but at the same time hitting your rucks and things like that is just as important. Combining the two is something I’ve worked at to keep getting better.
“Rassie’s told me ‘if it’s on, it’s on, back yourself’. We have the systems and things but, you know, you’ll just be a team with systems if there is no individual brilliance. That’s what he says and he’s right too because you have a great team and collectively we play well together but at the same time it’s a linebreak that is going to score a try, it’s a great high ball taken out in the air like Darren Sweetnam has been doing. It’s these moments that create scores and separate good from great. We want to be great and he’s encouraging us to go along that path.”
The freedom to back themselves has been evident in Munster’s play this season and particularly the last couple of months, culminating in a tremendous 38-0 bonus-point win over European pool rivals Leicester at Thomond Park last Saturday.
Today’s return fixture at Welford Road represents another test of the province’s commitment to those principles, a year on from losing home and then away to the Tigers at the same point in the season.
“It’s obviously different going over there on the back of a win than it is on a loss but I think this year there is a common understanding of the way we want to play. There’s just a great buzz and enthusiasm around the place and everybody is optimistic and if something goes wrong the slate is wiped and we are on to the next job and there is no mulling over it and it’s just a great atmosphere to be involved in. Week to week there is new challenges and everybody is excited by that.
“There’s great depth in the squad and the competition is high and it’s all building nicely for a good season. We need to show our character this week and try and come away with a win in Welford Road and that will be very tough.”
The breathing space to wipe the slate clean after making an error is for Zebo an important accommodation in the new world being created by Erasmus.
“He’s very encouraging. If there is a mistake there’s a mistake. If there’s a missed tackle there’s a missed tackle. People wouldn’t go and buy tickets if nobody made mistakes and there were no tries, who would want to see that?
“Stuff will happen and things will go wrong but it’s how we react to that and bounce back and how we shake it off and have no fear and how we go out and have the confidence to try something again.
“The main thing is we are enjoying our rugby and that is down to the atmosphere and encouragement we are getting from the coaches and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
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