Zebo on red alert to keep Sarries’ flying wingmen in check

The praise, for once, is valid, as Simon Zebo anticipates the head-to-head contests between the wings of Munster and Saracens in their Champions Cup Pool 1 clash at Thomond Park tonight.

Chris Ashton and David Strettle have earned their stripes as two of the best in the business, a point underlined by both wide men last Saturday as they scored two tries apiece in the bonus-point victory over Clermont Auvergne.

They may be surplus to requirements for England head coach Stuart Lancaster, providing even more incentive to perform well in Limerick tonight just 48 hours after their omission from their country’s autumn internationals’ squad, but Zebo is in no danger of overlooking their talents.

“They’re very dangerous operators, there aren’t many better on form than they are,” Zebo said.

“We’ll have to be at the races from minute one and make sure they have no opportunities. They’re two of the form wingers in Europe. They’re scoring tries for fun. We’ll have to be on red alert to make sure we can nullify them as best we can.”

Of course, Zebo is no slouch himself. The 24-year-old Corkman is the only active international amongst tonight’s wings, thanks to his call-up by Joe Schmidt this week for Ireland’s Guinness Series of Tests next month against South Africa, Georgia and Australia, and can call himself a Lion following his tour Down Under 16 months ago.

He also happens to have recaptured the sort of form that got him on that tour with a late call-up by Warren Gatland as injury cover for Tommy Bowe. All of which makes the recent decision to write “UNDER-RATED” on his wrist strapping for the Pro12 game against Benetton Treviso something of a curiosity.

“Ah, that was just personal goals and motivation,” Zebo explained. “Everyone would have their own thing to get them motivated. Mine varies. Sometimes I plan something a week before, sometimes it’s the night before.

“This time I wrote something on my wrist, but I’ve done that before too. Just to remind me of a mindset I need to click into.

“It was just to keep me focused, it was in my head and I wanted to be reminded of it on the pitch. I wouldn’t view anything negatively. It was just something to keep me motivated that extra little bit. I wanted to see that during the game and help me to perform better. I’d be very strong mentally. I know what works for me.

“Hopefully there never comes the day when I have an absolute stinker on a rugby pitch. I’d be quite strong mentally. I know what I need and when I need it. That was one thing I needed for that particular week. It worked (he scored a first-half hat-trick of tries). It’s internal, personal motivation.”

Any declarations that need making tonight in this round two game will be as a collective with Munster seeking to follow up their last-gasp opening victory at Sale Sharks with a vital home win over pool favourites Saracens to take them unbeaten into the back-to-back games with Clermont.

A win for the visitors, meanwhile, will give the London club a firm grip on the group as they prepare to face Sale Sharks home and away and Zebo knows it will need a much improved performance from Munster, particularly compared to their first-half showing at AJ Bell Stadium, if that is to be avoided.

“It’s massively important to have momentum in this competition and we’re both looking for two from two as we head into December. That would be a massive statement. We just need to be massively on our game and not slip up at the start as we did on Saturday against Sale. Or else we’ll be punished. Saracens are so classy we wouldn’t be able to reel back a margin like that within 40 minutes. Nothing less than a win is acceptable.”

Munster handed Sale a 23-7 interval lead last Saturday, prompting some harsh reviews for the players on their return to training this week.

“We didn’t hold onto possession as well as we should. We kept giving the ball away stupidly, off set-piece and our first phase moves weren’t great. And with a wind behind them, they were able to keep pinning us back and make it difficult for us to get out of our half again.

“Anthony just told us at half-time to keep our hands on the ball, start building pressure. Thankfully we did that. We know what we can do when we keep the ball in hand. We have ball-carriers all over the park, CJ and Peter. Felix was popping up all over the place and the two centres are dangerous on the ball.

“If we can just hold on to the ball, keep building pressure, we’re confident we can do damage. So if there’s one thing to take from the game last weekend, especially the second 40, it’s that.”


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