Poster boy with the happy-go-lucky nature was born to run for Munster
“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.