Johann van Graan has hailed Simon Zebo as a “completely unique” talent and revealed the full-back’s pledge to make his remaining time at Munster his best few months in red.
Zebo, 27, will pack his bags and head off to Paris next season to join Racing 92, turning down a big contract offer from the IRFU in order to fulfil his ambition of playing in France’s Top14.
On Sunday, four days after being overlooked by Ireland for next month’s Six Nations, he capped another impressive performance for the province this season with a try in the
48-3 hammering of Castres that secured a home Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulon on the last weekend in March.
Head coach van Graan was delighted with Zebo’s performance and saw it as proof that the Munster star was keeping the bargain agreed between the two men when the South African arrived in mid-November.
“Zeebs is completely unique and the two of us have struck a very strong relationship early,” said van Graan.
“When I came it was already known that he was going away and our first chat was ‘listen, you have got a few months left at Munster, let’s take it day by day and make it your best few months.
“He has bought into it every single day, he is a player for the big stage and this (Castres) was a big stage and he came through.
“That was the best he has played since I arrived at Thomond Park.”
The Munster boss praised Zebo’s all-round game in Sunday’s European pool finale, not just the excellent try, finished from outside the 22 after running a support line for man of the match Keith Earls as the wing broke inside from the halfway line.
“I thought he had three high balls in the first 10 minutes in that wind and he caught all three brilliantly and his kicking game was outstanding and the things that people won’t see is his off-the-ball work and that try... once he saw that try-line he just went for it.
“Very happy about that performance and in games like these you need your star players to come through. Zeebs was certainly one of them tonight and credit to all 23 guys who took the pitch. Very happy about that.”
Since leaving his post as Springboks forward coach to succeed compatriot Rassie
Erasmus midway through November, van Graan has presided over nine Munster games, although assistant coaches Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery prepared the team for the first of those, a bonus-point away win at Zebre.
During that time, Munster have won five more times, including home and away European wins over Leicester Tigers. Two losses came over the festive period, at home to Leinster on St Stephen’s Day followed by another derby loss on New Year’s Day with an understrength side at Ulster, before Munster got back on track in the Guinness PRO14 with a much-needed win over Connacht.
The narrow loss at Racing 92 nine days ago was the only other defeat. Sunday’s bonus-point victory over Castres brought to a close an instructive first block of games for the new head coach, who will now look to learn more from watching the Munster contingent during Ireland’s Six Nations campaign.
“The first objective was to be well placed in the PRO14. We are second in our pool. We start with Zebre (at Thomond Park on Saturday, February 10) and then we have Cardiff away. We have got Glasgow and then Edinburgh. So in terms of PRO14, I believe we are pretty well set. One of the things I got from Rassie was when he said, ‘they played so well throughout the year and then in May, they fell a bit short’.
“We are well set in the PRO14 and in terms of Champions Cup, Munster and Europe has a pretty special relationship, so for me as an individual, it is important we get through to the quarter-finals.
“Most important are the relationships with the people around me. I said from day one, ‘this is not about me’. I think relationships are well set. We as coaches will take an eagle view about our game and our players. We have set new goals for the guys who will stay behind for the next block of games. I will stay in touch with the Irish squad.
“I will learn a lot (about Munster’s players) from Joe (Schmidt) and his coaches over the next few days and weeks and once we get back in 10 days’ time, we will readjust, set new goals. It is Zebre first.
"And again, a wider view to the quarter-final, it is a long way in the future. We will be looking to develop our game and keep our building blocks in place.
“Maybe the thing I am most proud of, yes, we’ve been attacking very well but defensively to keep them down to three in a game like this is a big positive from last week. Our set-piece fired tonight, our team fired tonight.”
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