Laid-back Zebo staying focused on Clermont
Munster wing puts Tuesday’s Lions announcement to back of the mind
It’s become a ritual theme of the week and is, no doubt, irritating the hell out of them all. Pick a Munster player, then pick his direct Clermont opponent and ask said Munster player about his counterpart. Cue the “world-class” reply and the this-is-why-you-play-rugby, to “test yourself against the best” mantra. Only it’s true, and never more so than in the case of Simon Zebo.
“Sitiveni,” you begin. “Sivivatu” says Zebo with, of course, a ready smile. Possibly the best winger in Europe right now, profoundly happy in his Clermont environs now that is he settled and in his second season, and the man whose stunning footwork and offloading, or typically Kiwi/Fijian way of changing direction at full tilt, creates so many opportunities for others or finishes them off himself.
“God, he’s electric,” admits Zebo. “I’ve been watching him since I’ve been very small.” So, no need to wonder about when to mention the Sivivatu try off Tana Umaga’s long right to left pass that broke the Lions’ spirit in 2005.
“It was something outrageous, his footwork is something else. He’s gifted alright. You could say definitely! So I’m going to be very excited yeah. I used to actually have his name on my boots when I was in ‘Pres’ playing rugby.”
Ah no, you’re kidding? “I used to love him that much, yeah. I used to have Sivivatu on one side and Zebo on the other side. It was funny.”
Zebo was 15 at the time, but he’s far from starry-eyed at the thought of confronting one of his boyhood heroes. “I love it. The more you big him up the better. In fairness he’s been in electric form . . . he’s scoring tries for fun and his offloads are out of this world. So I’ll have my work cut out.”
Zebo has pulled up after lunch in his sponsored sports car. Suits him. By rights, it should be a convertible with the roof down, as summer, or at any rate spring, had descended upon the country for the first time in about eight months last Tuesday, but then again Simon Zebo cruising around Cork with the roof down might be a tad too eye-catching.
Not that it needs good weather to bring out Zebo’s disposition. As ever, he smiles, chuckles and laughs throughout the interview. Not alone does he not do nervous, he doesn’t do moody either. Zebo walks to a different beat, but in a somewhat po-faced sport that often takes itself far too seriously, Zebo is blissfully different.
Unsurprisingly, Zebo is usually slagged for his relative disinterest in all things concerning the opposition, be it video analysis or even their individual names. Like his Martinique-born father Arthur, Zebo would be too chilled for that. He’d watch rugby if it was on television.
“I’d prefer to throw it on than watch Hull play Stoke, or something like that now! Unless my buddy (David) Myler is playing.”
Zebo’s team is Arsenal, so he has good taste too. “I like the way they play,” he explains, and has been to the Emirates when staying with family in London.
Mostly though, he’s laidback to the point of being prostrate. At times, he admits, his easy-going nature perhaps held back his development, but while the innate speed and running skills and big left boot comes naturally, in the last two years he’s worked hard on his physical fitness and his defence.
“I knocked a year or two off my playing career there,” he says with a laugh, “by being too laidback. I had to knuckle down a little bit. Still I wasn’t going changing my personality for anybody or do anything out of the ordinary but a lot of hard work and the hard work paid off.”
His attitude is also a strength, and most importantly, having an easygoing attitude to life and the game works for him. Getting pent-up and banging his head off a dressingroom wall is not for him. And it’s why he won’t be nervous about facing Sivivatu and the rest of Clermont’s galaxy of stars. Just “excited”, as ever.
It was Zebo’s hat-trick in the final pool game at home to Racing which propelled Munster into the knockout stages, and he’s rarely known a better moment than his second try, which secured the bonus point for qualification. “Oh, it was insane,” he recalls, beaming at the memory. “Just because it meant so much to us as a group to get the fourth try. There had been a lot of pressure and a lot said about us. We weren’t consistent at all during the first half of the season and, yeah, it was just great for the group of lads and I was happy that we were able to contribute and the fans kind of enjoyed that one as well.”
Following that, there was a try on his Six Nations debut, gift-wrapped by Brian O’Driscoll. “If I didn’t finish that I would have never played again.” And that backheeled flick into his hands. While it became one of the Six Nations’ abiding images, and will forever more be a trick he patented, he now reveals: “I was just very angry I didn’t score. If I’d scored my buddies would have never heard the end of it.”
The broken metatarsal he suffered against England ended his Six Nations prematurely. “I was gutted. I was in serious form and I felt extremely confident in everything I did and I was really enjoying my rugby because I was winning with both Ireland and Munster.”
But with the help of Munster physio Anthony Coole, Zebo was quickly able to refocus on the target of a Heineken Cup quarter-final. Fearful that he might be “blowing” after 20 minutes, once the game began all such fears were erased. But wonderful though the win was, he’s quick to stress “we’ve won nothing”, adding: “There is only a handful of players who have won stuff in the changing room and there’s nobody riding a wave now of the past glories and past trophies won. We want to win our own trophies and get our own medals and starting this season.”
Of today’s match-day squad, the “handful” of players involved in the victorious 2008 final amount to Denis Hurley, Keith Earls (an unused sub), Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, with the latter two the only two-time winners. There’s a sense in this campaign of O’Gara and O’Connell passing a baton on to a new generation desperate to create their own legacy, of which Zebo should be in the forefront.
“They just bring a calmness and they set the standard for Munster rugby,” he says of the two totems, “and to have them in the changing rooms, you know that there’s a level that you have to stay at if you want to win, keep your place, if you want to uphold the standards of Munster rugby basically and they’ve just got great knowledge and experience and they pass that down brilliantly to the younger players. They’re just two very special players and I’m just glad that they are on our team.”
“I think it’s inspiring, definitely. I think the joy and the happiness that they brought everybody in the province of Munster when they won those two titles was something very special and something you want to bring back and repay the fans with. It’s hugely exciting for us now that we’re back in the place with an achievable goal.”
In the frame
As an aside, it’s also put Zebo and a few other Munstermen, Paul O’Connell, Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Donnacha Ryan in the frame for the Lions. Aside from his many on-field attributes – that pace on the hard Australian grounds, his excellence under the high ball, that big left boot, an ability to play at fullback – his good-humoured, friendly manner would make him an excellent tourist.
But he daren’t allow himself think of Tuesday’s announcement. “You just can’t really think about it too much. All I’m focusing on is Clermont and if we put in a good performance and we win the game then . . .” The Munster way. Concentrate on performing collective, and the individual rewards will come.
There is pressure within to perform, but he believes the pressure from outside is much more intensely focused on Clermont as the ‘home’ side and favourites.
“If these kind of days don’t excite you then you’re playing the wrong game because it’s going to be something else. The atmosphere is going to be off the wall. It’s the biggest game of the season by far and . . . our backs are against the wall. We’re being put up against it, we’re underdogs and it’s going to be an unbelievable occasion.”