Simon Zebo is looking for a strong showing with Munster this New Year to maintain his hold on Ireland’s number 11 jersey heading into what he calls a "massive year" for Irish rugby.
Zebo played on the left wing in all three of Ireland’s victories over South Africa, Georgia and Australia but the return to fitness of rivals Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden in recent weeks as well as the impending comeback from a toe injury for Irish player of the year Andrew Trimble means the competition is heating up for the Corkman with the 2015 RBS 6 Nations looming and a World Cup squad to be picked in late August.
So the Munster wing, who has scored five tries in 11 Test appearances, the most recent against the Wallabies, knows he has to put his best foot forward in the coming weeks.
The push starts with a Pro12 trip to Zebre on Saturday as the Reds aim to bounce back from a New Year’s Day league defeat at Connacht, followed immediately by crunch European pool games against Saracens and Sale Sharks in successive weeks.
“It’s a massive year, World Cup, Six Nations and Champions Cup,” Zebo said. “In the Champions Cup we need to get momentum, and if we take care of our big games, then selection in the bigger tournaments in the end will take care of itself.
“Every player has their own little goals but as long as I’m playing well for Munster and we’re winning, then I’m happy. The rest will take care of itself.
“We just need to get consistent and keep winning the big games because we haven’t done enough of it this season and we’ll all be putting our hands up for other selections.”
Zebo believes the increase in Munster’s representation during the autumn — when eight men from the southern province made Joe Schmidt’s matchday squad against the Wallabies — is a sign of development in Anthony Foley’s squad this season and that individual progress into the Ireland set-up will only come if there is collective improvement.
“I think a lot of the players in this squad are well capable and have shown that in the past few months that they can make the next step. Collectively if we’re consistent and keep putting in good performances, then I’m sure more boys from Munster will put up their hands more consistently. Everybody is trying to improve and we hold similar standards down here where coaches are constantly trying to find that extra 1% or 2%.
“I think there’s no player out there who’s the finished article or complete player — we are always trying to improve; get bigger, stronger, faster.”
Munster’s European campaign will hinge on victory over the English Premiership powerhouse at Allianz Park in London but Ireland wing Zebo knows that if his province is to have the best possible chance of victory in north London, they must first do the business against the Guinness Pro12 bottom club in Italy on Saturday.
“It’s a pressure game because after our performance against Connacht, we need to right a few wrongs and we need to get momentum going into the European Cup weeks, so yeah, it’s all about performance this weekend and if we don’t take anything for granted and we prepare well, we’ll do enough to get the win,” Zebo said.
“If we don’t perform well and take them for granted, I’m sure we’ll leave with egg on our faces.”
If Munster can get back on track anywhere it has to be against Zebre, who are coming off home and away league defeats to Italian rivals Treviso, the latest in a five-game losing run. As tough as trips to Italy have become in recent seasons, with Ulster and Edinburgh losing at Zebre in this campaign, Zebo will fly to Parma tomorrow armed with a prolific scoring record.
The most recent appearance saw him claim a first-half hat-trick of tries during a 31-5 win at Thomond Park in September which snapped a three-game home losing run and as Zebo prepares for his first game at Zebre, he does not foresee any pre-European hiccups.
“I never have a problem playing games before the big games. I quite enjoy it. I see it as an opportunity to notch a few scores on the board and I just go out and enjoy my rugby. I always go out with a smile on my face and try and score a few tries and nothing will change this weekend. Off the back of a few losses, we need to put in a good performance this weekend and get a win because there’s a lot of teams close to each other in points in the Pro12 so hopefully we can get a win and a bit of separation.
“I suppose it will be a similar enough atmosphere to the Treviso games, which would be hostile enough, so we know a big performance is needed to get a win. It’s going to be a tough, physical encounter and we’re going to be, fingers crossed, ready and waiting.”
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