Poster boy with the happy-go-lucky nature was born to run for Munster
Munster have their poster boy signed up for three more years and, despite interest from Toulouse, that suits Simon Zebo just fine too. The prospect of losing such an engaging, free-running, free-spirited charismatic fans’ favourite, who embodies the new Munster, would have been unthinkable.
Zebo is the future, and if all goes well, could assuredly be a superstar of Irish rugby for many years to come.
“Happy days,” says Zebo.
The approach to his agent from Toulouse makes him giggle, like most things seemingly do, even if he genuinely countenanced a move to the one-time home of his Martinique-born father.
“France, and Toulouse especially, was flattering and I seriously considered it too, but my love for Munster came through, and especially if I’ve aspirations of playing for Ireland. I don’t want anything to hamper my opportunities to play for my country. Munster is my province. I want to be successful with this team. All my best friends are playing here too. We just want to win trophies with them. That sealed the deal.”
The target over the next two weekends is wins against Edinburgh and Racing, with qualification for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals thus a credible target. “There’s a lot of belief in the camp. We just have to win both our games, maybe with one bonus point. We left the Racing match away behind us but we’re going to make up for it now and please God make the quarters.”
With a weekend off as part of the Irish player welfare programme, Zebo was, as ever, in good spirits yesterday. Himself, sister Jessika, mum Lynda and dad Arthur all headed over to his aunt and uncle’s house in Croydon for three nights over Christmas, along with his grandparents, his Cork uncle, and indeed his dad’s sister came over from France as well.
In any event, he’s a Munster boy through and through. “Until the day I suppose.” Ten years old when Munster reached the Heineken Cup final in 2000, he watched avidly through the years of pain and gain.
“My most vivid memory would probably be the miracle match,” he recalled of the 33-6 win over Gloucester three years later. “John Kelly and the like scoring the tries and ‘Rog’ kicking the points and I’ve always seen red since then.
“It’s been a dream to play with them and I’m living the dream at the moment.”
He watched it at home in Blackrock with his dad, uncle and grandparents. By then, a neighbourhood friend, Charlie Murphy (brother of Irish and Munster full-back Kenny), had been instrumental in encouraging an eight-year-old Zebo up to Cork Con mini rugby and the bug was instant. Zebo was born to run with the ball, the natural pace and footwork emanating from his dad, along with the easy-going, always smiling Caribbean nature.
Moved to Paris
“He’s the most laid-back man you’ll ever meet. Very chilled out, very happy-go-lucky. Yea, similar to me. I get it from him.”
Martinique being an offshore region of France, Arthur Zebo moved to Paris at 19 to do military service, during which he sustained a broken leg which prevented him from running the 800 metres at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.
Zebo senior was 27 when he first met Lynda who was 18 while on holiday in Paris with a friend. Arthur followed Lynda to Cork after they married, but despite well over 25 years there – working the first 20 of them with Pfizer and latterly with Yves Rocher – save for the word “like” peppering his conversation, he still has his French/Caribbean accent, “which is pretty cool,” says Zebo junior.
Family holidays to Martinique were bi-annual childhood events, and while parts of the island are quite poor, he describes the majority as paradise. “That’s the only word I can use to describe it. It’s just beautiful. White sandy beaches, unbelievable scenery, mountains and palm trees. There’s a volcano and the beaches underneath when it erupted in 1906 or something like that are all black sand still. It’s class.”
Alas, the familial Olympic curse also hit Jessika, a 400 metre runner; injuries preventing her from reaching last year’s London Games and forcing her retirement at 27.
“She couldn’t get a good run of form going because of the injuries. After missing out on the Olympics she was a bit heartbroken, having previously qualified for the Europeans, and said the commitment was too great, not being paid greatly for it. She’s a social worker now, although she still trains a bit.”
Athletics can be soul-destroying, acknowledges Zebo with a rare hint of sadness in his voice, “especially when she had the talent to do great things”.
It also makes him appreciate his profession.
“Everything you want you can have, and you just can’t take it for granted because it doesn’t last that long. You’ve just got to be grateful that you’re one of the lucky few who has this job and loves to go into work every day.”
As well as heroes in the flesh, he watched in boyhood awe of Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen “and all these cool payers”, and resolved to emulate them. “Getting the ball and trying to beat players, I just loved it, just trying to do things that I saw on the TV and try to get better and better and be like them.”
A broken leg when 14 at “Pres” stalled his progress, but in his penultimate school year he was part of the 2007 Munster Schools’ Cup-winning side.Despite being one of eight Irish Under-18 players on the team along with Peter O’Mahony the following season, Pres were mugged in the semi-final by Castletroy and, again sidelined by injury, it was through playing for the Munster Under-20s that he broke into the Munster academy a year later. For this, he says, he’ll always owe a debt to his club.
“After school I didn’t want to play for UCC, I wanted to try and play for the best team in the country at the time, and that was Cork Con. They had a great coaching staff with Brian Walsh and Brian Hickey and they were very good to me. Like, they had real honest chats with me, they were very knowledgeable and they believed in me the whole time. They gave me my chance when I was 18.
“It was tough, coming straight out of school to judge yourself against the best amateur players in the country. Yea, I’ll always owe Cork Con.”
A standout memory will always be his Munster debut in the League away to Connacht in April 2010, having just turned 20. “One of my proudest moments ever playing rugby. I’ll never forget the changing rooms beforehand. People like Mick O’Driscoll were just rallying the troops and I remember looking around at the players who were there and thinking: ‘I can’t believe I’m here’. There was a great atmosphere, as there always is for those derbies, and we won. And I got a yellow card.”
Fearful of Fionn Carr’s pace, he slapped down an intended pass for his opposing winger. “I’d say he would have went the 80 if he had got the ball and Alain Rolland threw me in the bin,” he says with another laugh.
Last season he signed his first two-year, pro contract and so began a meteoric rise, even if it was about a year later than he had hoped. But he acknowledges Tony McGahan was right to insist he improve his levels of conditioning, passing skills and work-rate off the ball.”
Doing a bit extra after training and focusing on some areas going into training has definitely paid off in the last year. Then skills are just a bit more consistent and that feeds into performance.”
Last season, in 19 starts he was Munster’s leading try-scorer with a dozen tries, including his memorable hat-trick in the win away to Northampton in his rookie Heineken Cup campaign, as well as a try on his Irish Wolfhounds debut against the Saxons, and a first Test start against the All Blacks in Eden Park.
Not that he was nervous. Simon Zebo doesn’t do nervous.
“To make my Test debut against the best team in the world was not daunting, but it was very exciting knowing that I was coming up against players that I had seen do unbelievable things on a rugby pitch.”
Eye-catchingly stronger under the high ball, Zebo even effortlessly switched to fullback in the November series.
“I love the wing but it assured me that I was able to play 15 as well, because I always thought I could and never really did prior to the autumn series. There was great support from players like Tommy Bowe, and Andrew Trimble and Rog and these fellas, giving me a lot of confidence and Kearns (Rob Kearney) as well. Yea, no issues whatsoever. Play there again if I was asked.”
There was also his first Test try against Argentina, followed by the trademark “Z” signature with his hands. “To score my first try for my country is something I’ll never forget, especially in front of a home crowd. It’ll be stuck in the memory bank forever.”
All being well, plenty more where they came from too.