Zebo ready to move into fullback from left field
The most interesting selection in the Ireland team to play South Africa when it is announced tomorrow will be the occupant of the number 15 jersey.
With Rob Kearney sidelined, there is no obvious successor at fullback, and while Denis Hurley is the only specialist in the squad, intriguingly all the indications are that Simon Zebo is a live contender for the role.
Given the heavy emphasis on a balanced kicking game, the left-footed Zebo is the most like-for-like replacement for Kearney, whose aerial strength and huge left boot always flourished against the Springboks for Ireland and for the Lions. It would be a huge gamble to pick the once-capped 22-year-old in a relatively unfamiliar position, but options are not plentiful and the management are on record as saying that Zebo is one, along with Hurley, Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe.
However, Hurley was only drafted into the squad as a late call-up last week while Earls is most likely being earmarked for his favoured outside centre position in the absence of Brian O’Driscoll. This is, after all, the position that Earls has ably filled in the last seven Tests, as well as playing outside O’Driscoll in the first Test in New Zealand, whereas he has only played once at fullback since his debut there four years ago almost to the day.
Bowe, it is true, played satisfactorily at fullback for Ulster in their win over the Dragons, but it’s been a long time since the teenage Bowe was irreverently taking on 15 opponents from his own line in his free-running Queen’s University days.
Granted, Zebo has only played a handful of games at fullback for Cork Constitution. But perming Bowe, Zebo and Andrew Trimble in the back three would enable Ireland to field an in-form triumvirate, and of those Zebo has the longest kicking game. He would also give a left-footed option to Jonathan Sexton in the middle of the pitch, and while his defensive game is not without its imperfections, he has been impressive under the high ball this season for Munster, is in good form, has ironed out a tendency to over-do the big plays and he would add an undoubted attacking dimension.
Other leftfield options would have been Ian Keatley and especially Ian Madigan, but neither of them have been named in the squad, with Ulster outhalf Paddy Jackson instead having been called up.
In the build-up to this game virtually every member of the squad has made reference to South Africa’s famed kicking game. Even Donnacha Ryan did so yesterday in Carton House before kicking coach Mark Tainton sat in the same chair immediately afterwards and expanded on the theme.