It doesn’t seem so long since Simon Zebo was struggling for a first audition under Joe Schmidt, but the Munster man’s worth to the national cause continues to expand with the head coach giving him the nod to start again at full-back against England tomorrow.
Initially frozen out of Schmidt’s Ireland plans, Zebo finally fought his way in to make nine consecutive appearances on the wing, though his place in the firmament was questioned again when left out of the Six Nations decider against Scotland last March.
Not now. He banked 45 minutes on the wing against Wales as a replacement in the opening World Cup warm-up and then started at full-back against Scotland. Though rested against the Welsh last week, he had done enough to warrant inclusion in the tournament squad of 31.
Tries in both his outings so far this summer undoubtedly helped in that and now, with Felix Jones falling the wrong side of the cut, it is Zebo in prime position to push Rob Kearney for the number 15 jersey and that will please him no end.
Zebo has long made it clear that his preference is to play there. His reasoning his simple: though he worked assiduously on the dog work Schmidt demands from his tramline runners, he plays rugby to get his hands on the ball.
It may be that Dave Kearney’s electric form pushes Zebo onto the bench – the Leinster wing starts again tomorrow in Twickenham – or out of the matchday 23, but Schmidt was adamant that the Munsterman is now much more than just a winger who can cover full-back.
“No, he’s versatile enough to be called a wing full-back and there are a lot of players in our squad who can play full-back with both Jared (Payne) and Robbie (Henshaw) pretty accomplished there, Dave Kearney has played a lot at full-back.
“Luke Fitzgerald has played full-back at this level.
“So there are a lot of guys who have played there but, with Simon, he’s got a very good kicking game.
“His ability to read the game is pretty good so defensively he’s really ... he’s making strides.”
Schmidt did add that Zebo had been caught for Peter Horne’s try against Scotland last month and that his entry into the edge of the backline would have to be nailed on in tomorrow’s last warm-up against an England back three of Johnny May, Mike Brown and Anthony Watson.
He will be helped no end by the fact that the cast around him could hardly be stronger.
Tommy Bowe and Dave Kearney start on the wings, Payne and Henshaw make up the midfield while Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray pull the strings. And all that on the back of a pack which, Cian Healy aside, is expected to be the de facto starting eight come the crunch in the tournament itself.
Healy’s continued absence is far from ideal, however. The Leinster loosehead has again been held back despite being given the all-clear to play and having taken part in scrummaging and contact sessions. He will thus travel cold to the World Cup itself.
What that does allow is for Tadhg Furlong to sit on the bench as cover for Jack McGrath and brace for what looks like being his first professional run-out at loosehead prop.
That, and Darren Cave’s place alongside him on the sideline, makes for intriguing reading.
Everyone is fit, said Schmidt, including the rested Rob Kearney, Keith Earls who passed return-to-play protocols after suffering a concussion against Wales six days ago and Luke Fitzgerald who suffered some bruising around the hip in the same game.
Prudence dictated that both sit this one out. That and the need to juggle the needs and wants of a full squad in which some players feel able to face Canada from a standing start and others who need games to blow out the cobwebs first.
A meeting with a powerful England side keen to atone for a poor effort in France last time out – and on the eve of a tournament being held in their bailiwick – should certainly do that, even if Schmidt is playing down the need to avoid a second straight defeat before lift-off in Cardiff on the 19th.
His team were “unlucky” in last week’s loss to Wales, he said, while he queried a fair number of the 16 penalties conceded at the behest of referee Craig Joubert in that 16-10 loss. A win tomorrow would be welcome, but it is not the priority.
“There’s a premium on performance, getting individuals ready,” he said, “but I guess with the World Cup (approaching) you always want to get the result. These players are too competitive not to want to get the result.”
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