Stats can get a bad rap but there comes a time every now and again when one stands out like an orange in an apple orchard and Simon Zebo’s try-scoring record in the Six Nations is the perfect example of just such an oddity.
Zebo made his debut in the competition this week four years ago when it took him just 11 minutes to run over for his first tournament try thanks, in the main, to a delicious pass behind the back of the last defender by Brian O’Driscoll.
The legendary centre ended that game filling the breach at scrum-half and with the man-of-the-match award but it is Zebo’s flick of the foot to control a wayward Jamie Heaslip pass most of us recall when reminded of that helter skelter 30-22 win in Cardiff.
He had arrived.
“It was very good, very enjoyable,” Zebo said of that bow. “Looking back on it now I’m proud of myself for sticking to my beliefs in how I play the game, having no fear to try things. It was my first Six Nations games and that was quite evident. I’m quite proud of my younger self.”
That try remains, astonishingly, his last five-pointer in the championship.
He lasted just 11 minutes the week after against England in Dublin before breaking his foot and then didn’t feature at all the following February or March. But eight appearances since, only one of them off the bench, have produced nothing but blanks.
It’s a point made not by way of criticism so much as curiosity. Zebo’s star has risen almost year on year. He has had to overcome the doubters — some would say Joe Schmidt amongst them — who suspected his approach was too cavalier and his defence not rounded enough for life in the Test arena.
The pace and trickery that have always been his trademark remain undimmed and his work-rate has clearly shot up. Stints at full-back with club and country have added further to his skillset and any highlight reel adds empirical evidence to that upward arc.
Witness the sublime kick up the line in Chicago, the dinky grubbers against Australia weeks later and Romania in the 2015 World Cup or the long, looped passes that put Keith Earls in for tries that day against the eastern Europeans and when Toulouse came to Limerick in 2014. He has evolved as a player but the approach remains the same.
“I still go out and try to play the way I did when I was 19 or 20, play with a smile on my face, enjoy myself and not be afraid to try things. I back myself to do things on the pitch that ultimately contribute to winning matches. I try to go out with that spirit. Obviously, there are areas of your game you need to improve as you get older, little things, but in terms of the game, my mindset hasn’t changed. I’ve done alright so far so if I continue to improve I can go even better.”
Still only 26, he is already Munster’s all-time top scorer. He has bagged tries against the very best the club (51) and international scenes (7) have to offer, his prime could be another two or three years away and the wider world in general seems to be bending in accommodation.
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber arrived at Munster and told him to play away and mistakes be damned. It’s not often a coach has told him that. Add in, too, the new global focus on high tackles and the boon that could be for a player who is a disciple of the offload.
Strange to think, then, he still isn’t deemed a certain starter on Saturday. The odds are he will but it would, he admits, be “very tough” were he to miss out given his form with Munster and the national team this season.
Zebo already knows careers, like wingers, don’t run in straight lines.
He played every minute of the first four Six Nations games two years ago before Schmidt cited “wear and tear” in dropping him from the matchday 23 for the final match, against Scotland, when Ireland clinched the Six Nations on points difference.
And any diluted input at Murrayfield this time around would be made all the more difficult to bear given the presence of his good friend and fellow British and Irish Lions back three candidate Stuart Hogg on the opposite side and the party to come this summer in New Zealand.
Warren Gatland has been an interested observer in Carton House this week and, though Zebo played under him three times on the 2013 tour to Australia, this would be an opportune time to remind the Kiwi of his worth.
A try or two certainly wouldn’t hurt.
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