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.
“I wouldn’t say they rely massively on their kicking game. They can play different styles of rugby. They showed that during the championship, especially in that last game against New Zealand. But primarily from their own half they very rarely run first phase ball. Me having said that, they’ll probably go wide with their first two plays, we don’t know,” Tainton acknowledged with a smile.
“But their kicking is very accurate. If they play Ruan (Pienaar) at nine, which is a strong possibility, we’ve all watched him play for Ulster, we’ve watched him play for South Africa, and he’s world-class without a doubt.”
Much would depend on whether Heyneke Meyer opts for Patrick Lambie, the out-of-form and demoted Morne Steyn or young Elton Jantjes at outhalf, with the expectation in the South African media that Lambie will be chosen today.
“They have all got big boots and they are all fairly accurate,” said Tainton. “When we kick back to them we have to keep as much pressure on them as possible and make sure our kicks are accurate as well. We can’t afford to give them the time to kick the ball 60 metres back because South Africa are a pressure team and they want to play the game as much as they can in your half, and wear you down.”
“There will surely be kicking. It is going to be a territory game. We don’t know what the weather is going to be like. The long-term forecast is good but this is Ireland and who knows what it will be like at 5.30 on Saturday. If it is a damp, miserable night I am sure you will see a lot of kicking.”
Encouragingly Paul O’Connell and Cian Healy both came through training without any hitches again yesterday, and while Tainton stressed that being the goalkicker and main tactician wouldn’t prohibit Jonathan Sexton from the captaincy, it still would be a surprise if anyone other than O’Connell was skipper. As the concussed Declan Fitzpatrick still had not rejoined the squad yesterday, the odds on Michael Bent being selected on the bench have shortened further.
Simon Zebo factfile
Height: 6’ 2” (1.88m)
Weight: 14st 10lb (94kg)
Club: Munster/Cork Con
Ireland caps: 1 (0 pts)
Debut: June 2012 (v NZ)
Munster caps: 39 (80 pts)