No inner conflict for Simon Zebo as he prepares to face Racing
Popular figure determined to end his period with Munster by claiming silverware
Simon Zebo: “My love for Munster could definitely bring me back. I’ve an incredible connection with the supporters around Munster.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
At face value it might look like a strange one. Simon Zebo will tomorrow line out for Munster against Racing 92 in the latter’s new U Arena, which will also be his new home next season. But if anybody can take such an occasion in his stride, it is the laid-back 27-year-old. There will certainly be no inner conflict.
Zebo, engagingly as ever, afforded The Irish Times half an hour of his time last Tuesday at Munster’s High Performance Centre in the University of Limerick in the full knowledge that Racing would be confirming his move there later that afternoon.
While it was a little cheeky of Racing to run a full interview with him on their website, they were fully entitled to make the announcement when they saw fit.
Munster knew it was coming that afternoon as well, and he’d told his teammates last November that Racing was his next club. Ian Keatley even joked publicly on Tuesday about their intention to “send Zebo over there with two losses”.
“This [Munster] is my family. Munster rugby is everything to me. Racing is nothing to me as of now, and Racing won’t mean anything to me until I arrive into the training facility. Hopefully we go out and hammer them to a pulp this weekend and I’ll score a lash of tries. That’s what I want to happen.
“What’s happening in the future is down the road, and I’m as focused and determined as ever to play my best for Munster and end the season on a high.”
Furthermore, his representatives had been in negotiations before the sides’ first meeting at Thomond Park in October, which didn’t diminish his desire one iota, and if anything, his decision to leave has strengthened Zebo’s resolve to make his ninth season with his native province more memorable.
“It kind of scares me a little that I only have a handful of games with Munster [left]. I grew up dreaming of playing with them, and to think that it’s coming to an end is sad.
“I’ve always tried to enjoy my rugby as much as possible and play with a smile on my face, but this season I feel there’s that extra bit of pressure on us to win something and for me personally to perform because I don’t want to leave empty handed.”
Like Peter O’Mahony, a team-mate from Cork Con underage as well as PBC sides, and Conor Murray, Zebo was amongst the crowd at the Millennium Stadium in 2006 when travelling over with his uncle, Neil Geary, to see Munster reach their Holy Grail with that win over Biarritz.
He admits he’s had many, incredible highs since with Munster, innumerable wins on the road or in Limerick and Cork, studded with a record 58 tries in 133 games and counting. More than the memories have been the friendships.
“I’ve friends for life with Munster. That’s the best thing I’d take away from it.”
But ask him about the low points and he immediately cites “the lack of silverware”.
“The most important thing is winning, and we’ve got a group of players who have been together for a long time and there’s always been a case of ‘next year’ or ‘we’re getting there’, but that’s just not good enough. This year is everything to us and hopefully this translates into our performances at the business end of the season, because it means a lot to me personally and for all the boys in the squad. We don’t want it to be another ‘next year’ conversation at the end of the season.”
Not least as there won’t be another next season for Zebo as things stand.
But why leave Munster, and why Racing?
“There’s so much around it, I could chat to you for hours, but the main reason was that it was probably the right time to go. My kids are at an age where minimal stress was put on them by moving,” he explained, in reference to Jacob (who turns three in May) and Sofia (who will be two in August).
“It was the right club, the right deal and the right place, with family around me, and I’ve always wanted to play in the Top 14. I could have waited another two or three years, but when I weighed everything up it was just the right time to pull the trigger.
“Not a lot of people would leave what I have in Ireland to try a new beginning and new challenge, but it was always something I wanted to do and life is too short not to take chances. I am excited by it but in a lot of ways it will be very sad leaving Munster. I’m not looking forward to that day.”
It’s also a decision that was fully supported by his wife, Elvira, who herself has relocated from Spain and completed a law degree in UCC, and his parents, Lynda and Arthur.
As well as being a direct flight to and from Dublin, he has extended family in Paris, including aunts, uncles and three cousins, and friends there from regular family visits to the city. In all of this Zebo, as ever, has remained true to himself. He’s also remaining true to his Irish-French roots.
Arthur hailed from Martinique, from where he moved to Paris when he was 19 to do his military service. A broken leg when parachute training prevented him from competing in the 800m at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
“These were the guys I was trying to emulate as well as Rog [O’Gara] and Dougie [Howlett]. It was really French rugby that influenced the way I tried to play the game as a kid, and the way I still try to play.”
Lynda met Arthur while visiting Paris with a friend when studying French. He brought her to a club where he was DJ, playing Bob Marley and a range of reggae and hip hop.
“My dad was 27 and my mum was 19,” says Zebo smiling.
When she brought Arthur home to Cork to meet her parents, Breda and John Geary, he wore a white tuxedo with a black top hat.
“He was trying to impress,” says Zebo, now laughing. “My granddad nearly had a heart attack. Apparently it was hilarious. He was probably the only black man in the country, never mind showing up at my grandfather’s steps in a white tuxedo. He didn’t have a word of English at the time either.”
His dad spoke French while Zebo and his sister, Jessika, were growing up in Cork, mostly when he was giving out to them or when he was cooking. There were also annual holidays to France or Martinique, with Arthur’s nine brothers and sisters split between the two countries.
“At home dad would be watching French TV, and French rugby or soccer. I wasn’t great at French in the Leaving Cert. Grammatically I’d be poor, but I’d have no problem in conversation, and if I was over there for a few months I’d be perfectly fluent.”
Luckily for Zebo he also inherited his dad’s speed. This was initially applied to Gaelic games and football, but a former Munster player, Charlie Murphy, who owns a garage in Blackrock where Zebo grew up, demanded that Zebo senior let his son try rugby in Cork Con. He was six.
“It was love at first sight,” says Zebo, “and ever since then I’ve been on the same team as Peter [O’Mahony] since we were toddlers. I loved sidestepping him and running around him when we were young.”
From there, through PBC, it was the same. By the age of nine he knew he had talent.
“Nobody could touch me at underage rugby,” he says, smiling, and not in a remotely conceited way. “Ask Pete. They’d throw the ball to me and I’d run around everybody. When you get confident as a young fella, you think you’re invincible, and you can do everything. Whatever the level, I felt very comfortable. Nothing fazed me as a young fella.
“From a young age I always thought this was going to be my job, and I’d no Plan B. My parents used to always say you need a Plan B, but you can’t go 100 per cent at Plan A if you’re thinking about Plan B, and I was going 100 per cent at Plan A. Thankfully it worked out.”
He made his Munster debut away to Connacht in April 2010, having just turned 20, receiving a yellow card when Alain Rolland deemed an attempted intercept was a deliberate knock on.
“And until Leicester last year, it was my only one,” he recalls, laughing. “I’m an angel. I’m a good boy on the pitch.”
“It was surreal. I actually had a poster of the All Blacks doing the haka in my room as a kid, above my bed. An incredible experience; my first cap against them at Eden Park, getting to play against Sonny Bill, Israel Dagg and all those guys.”
There have been 35 caps for Ireland, and nine tries.
“The high would be beating the All Blacks in Chicago. That’s number one, and winning the Six Nations [in 2015] and my first cap.”
The low point? “Not playing in the World Cup quarter-final.”
Zebo started at fullback in the victories over Romania (with three try-scoring assists) and Italy, before being left out of the group decider against France and that quarter-final against Argentina.
“That didn’t sit well with me,” he admits. “I’ll never forget that. I thought I deserved to play and I was disappointed at the selection. That would definitely be my low point, but the highs definitely outweigh the lows with Ireland.”
He’s aware that deciding to join Racing puts his Irish career at risk.
“If the worst was to happen and I wasn’t to play again for Ireland then I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I’d be able to accept it. I had to make a decision, around what was best for my family, and wanting to play in the Top 14.
“But I still get unbelievable pride singing the anthem and running out in a green shirt. Since I was a toddler I’ve been watching Irish games and players, and wanted to play in an Irish jersey. As long as I’m playing I’d absolutely love to play for Ireland.”
Zebo has the security of a three-year deal with Racing, with the option of leaving after two, so he’s understandably reluctant to say he’s gone for good or that he’ll return.
“I could really enjoy playing with Racing, and flourish in the Top 14, playing expansive rugby and trying to express myself as much as possible with the shackles off, and really embracing the lifestyle and the culture. I could see myself loving it so much and wanting to stay there an extra couple of years.
“But on the other hand my love for Munster could definitely bring me back. I’ve an incredible connection with the supporters around Munster. All my best friends in rugby play with Munster, and it would be a dream to come back and play in front of my home fans, because Munster is home to me and always will be.”
Yerrah, he’ll be back. And he’s not gone yet.