LIAM WEIR headed to Páirc Ui Rinn on Sunday to see Cork play CIT in the McGrath Cup, and afterwards decided to go to The Temple Inn in Ballintemple for a drink.
As the retired schoolteacher pulled in to park, he saw Arthur and Linda Zebo, parents of Simon, Munster’s hat-trick hero against Northampton and residents of Ballintemple, standing nearby.
“Congratulations,” said Weir, who taught the Munster star in Beamont NS, “You must be very proud.”
“Liam, my heart was bursting with pride,” said Linda.
“So were all of ours,” said Weir.
At Beamont, Weir had noticed Zebo early on. Arthur himself was a 400 and 800-metre runner of Olympic standard in his native France, so it was hardly surprising his son had a fair turn of pace.
“He always had speed,” says Weir. “He’d have plenty of medals from the primary schools sports when he was seven or eight years of age. He was very talented at all sports. He was at Beamont at the same time as David Meyler, now with Sunderland, and when they came up to around sixth class, Pres and Christians were very interested. The two of them were seen as a dream pair of flying wingers.
“But, as it turned out, while Simon went to Pres, David went to Christians and concentrated on soccer.
“I’d say he hardly kicked a rugby ball when he was there.”
Kerry hurling manager John Meyler, David’s father, remembers Zebo from those primary schooldays. “Simon was in the year behind David in Beaumont,” says Meyler senior. “I’d have been up there that time helping with the coaching of Sciath na Scol sides. Simon was talented, but one thing you’d notice even at that time was that he could jink. He was big and strong for his age but he had a sidestep and he’d be gone — a bit like the New Zealanders in that sense.
“His sister Jesika (now an international 400metre runner) was another great athlete — she was always winning medals in the primary games, just like Simon. When we saw him catch the ball from the kick-off against Northampton last Saturday we were thinking ‘we taught him that in Beaumont’.”
Zebo wasn’t long appearing on the big stage: Weir recalls the youngster lining out for Cork in the national school game ahead of the Cork-Kerry Munster final back in 2002, a wet day which also saw Ireland lose to Spain on penalties in that year’s World Cup.
Although Zebo figured for St Michael’s in a Féile na nÓg final, he didn’t continue with Gaelic football.
“You’d get a great kick out of seeing a fella go on and realise his potential,” says Weir. “No matter what the sport it’s great to see a guy like that succeed. Simon’s a very nice lad — very chatty, very friendly. But up for divilment at the same time.”
His first rugby coach in Cork Constitution, John O’Mahony, agrees. “He always had a great attitude with the team — he was a great character to have in the dressing-room, even as a kid, he was always in good form and in all the slagging. The other thing — the most obvious thing — was that he always had pace to burn. You couldn’t help but notice that. The potential was always there.”
O’Mahony sees a significant difference in Zebo’s performances this season compared to previous years, however. “I’d say the extra coaching at the top level is paying off now for Simon. Before you’d see him make the odd mistake or lose his concentration — now, he’d do 10 good things to make up for that, in fairness, but those lapses don’t really seem to be happening now. I think you can see that element of polish in his play now. He does the right thing time and time again over the course of the 80 minutes and you don’t see the focus slipping the way it might have done the odd time before.”
O’Mahony sees Zebo’s campaigns in the All-Ireland League with Cork Con as helping the player’s development in that sense.
“I think you see the value of the AIL when a player like Simon gets his chance to listen and learn in a competitive environment. Rather than pitching in players with Munster who mightn’t be quite ready, younger players in particular get match practice and if they make a few mistakes they’re able to learn from them.”
After his three tries last weekend Zebo is suddenly a hot property. A senior Munster pro recently said, tongue-in-cheek, the female half of Munster’s support only have eyes for Paul O’Connell, Conor Murray and Zebo. Any more performances like last Saturday’s and the flying winger’s appeal will be even broader.
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