Positives appear to outweigh negatives for Simon Zebo
When asked about Zebo’s contribution on Saturday, Joe Schmidt’s reply was most untypical of a coach who is normally a compelling talker about rugby
Ireland’s Simon Zebo in action against Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez during last Saturday’s first Test at the Estadio Centenario.
The case of Simon Zebo grows ever more curious. There appeared to be a ban on him facing the media on this tour whereupon, out of the blue, he was wheeled out for a breakfast briefing yesterday morning at the squad’s hotel and, as ever, reminded us what an innately good-humoured and good tourist he must be off the pitch.
However, it’s what Zebo does on the pitch that matters. At Joe Schmidt’s behest he appears to have upped his work-rate, defending and concentration levels in the 12 months he has been out of the Irish side – all of which he needed to do – while retaining his X factor. His offload for Darren Cave before the latter’s touchdown was over-ruled was O’Driscollesque, and was one of three offloads by Zebo out of the five Ireland managed on the day.
He was also Ireland’s leading carrier with 14 – his gain of 48 metres only being exceeded by Darren Cave and Andrew Trimble – and was the team’s fourth highest tackler with nine (missing one), behind Chris Henry, Iain Henderson and Robbie Diack.
Zebo divides opinions, and even his fans can be frustrated with him at times. But in the debate which assuredly followed his return, all in all, the positives appeared to outweigh the negatives. Yet the merest hint that Zebo might become something of a cause celebre appears to irritate Schmidt.
Having name checked five of the eight players called into the team compared to the starting line-up for the Six Nations finale in Paris, as well as Paul O’Connell and Rory Best, Schmidt noted that Darren Cave “did pretty well” despite missing [two] tackles, and likewise Andrew Trimble “was very, very good” despite also missing [three] tackles.
Schmidt’s responseYet when then asked what he made of Zebo’s overall contribution, Schmidt’s response (“Yeah, Simon was alright”) was most untypical of a coach who is normally a compelling talker about rugby.
That Ireland could almost beat the All Blacks for the first time and nearly win in Twickenham before clinching the Six Nations with a three-tries-to-two win over a French side which turned up, and without the same level of heavyweight artillery all the more so without Seán O’Brien and Stephen Ferris, is a tribute to the methods and high attention to detail which Schmidt applies himself and demands of everyone else in the squad.
Chief amongst these is a high level of accuracy at the breakdown – typically, Ireland won 96 per cent of its own ruck ball last Saturday – and for this to happen it constantly requires what Schmidt calls “ball focus”, positional awareness and accuracy at the breakdown from all 15 cogs in the wheel.
This is as true of his wingers, who tend to be more heavily involved in his teams, as anyone else but if anyone slacks off then it means somebody else has to do that work for them.
Revealing that “there are areas coming out of the game the game that I need to improve and there are areas that Joe is happy with”, when asked about the latter Zebo said: “Just decision-making around the breakdown, maybe just one or two moments in attack where I might not have given the final pass or something like that. There’s always areas. It is just different for every player, not just me on the wing.”
Better playerHe himself believes he is a better player than 12 months ago and, absence having made the heart grow fonder, was thrilled to be back. “Yea, because it shows you how quickly things can change. You’re just a couple of injuries being a year out, or longer, of the set-up. So you’ve got to really go out and enjoy it, and I try to do that even if it’s training or whatever game it is. That’s the beauty of it. I’m just so lucky to have the job that I do. I wouldn’t even call it a job. It’s just going out and enjoying myself and enjoying the company I’m in.”
He admits his sometimes wayward concentration has improved. “But that’s probably something that comes with age as well. I just turned 24 a couple of months’ back. I’m not 28/29 and at the peak of my career. There’s obviously parts of everybody’s game that aren’t at their maximum or at their peak, and that is another thing that I’ve improved and something I’ll always continue to improve because even the best players in the world have little clinks in their game. I just want to get to a stage where I probably notice them myself a bit less.”
Straight batHe also played a straight bat to any suggestion that he found Schmidt different from other coaches he has played for, that he ever considered he might not play for Ireland again, or that he was in any way a victim of what his former Munster coach Rob Penney referred to as “’tall poppy syndrome’ in New Zealand, where if someone sticks their head up they get it chopped off.”
Nor was he in any way nervous due to the first Test being his first game under Schmidt, yet for all his ever-smiling, easy-going nature, playing for his country matters enormously to him.
“It’s massive. It’s a dream every time you get to wear it and it’s something I want to do for as long as possible. I don’t know if there’s any words to explain the feeling you get when you run out on the pitch wearing the jersey and when you have the crowd back home cheering you on and stuff like that. It’s pretty special. Nothing really comes close to it, so I’d love to get another opportunity.”