Simon Zebo and Keith Earls revel in more expansive Munster
Form of flying backs illustrates Munster’s major improvement from last year
Simon Zebo runs in a try for Munster against Castres. The winger would be part of Ireland’s Six Nations squad if it was picked on merit. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
A striking feature of Munster’s backline on Sunday was that all bar one are in Ireland’s 36-man squad for the forthcoming opening rounds of the Six Nations. The exception, of course, was Simon Zebo, but his performance was a reminder that were the squad picked solely on form then he too would have been flying out to southern Spain on Monday for pre-Six Nations warm weather training camp.
Zebo scored his sixth try of the season, and third in the European Champions Cup, when trailing Keith Earls’s counter-attack infield and changing direction to accelerate through Geoffrey Palis and Kylian Jaminet.
It extended his record haul for Munster to 59 tries, in 135 games, and it’s interesting to note that his strike rate is actually higher in Europe (22 tries in 44 games) than in the Pro14 (37 tries in 91 games).
As impressive though was his assurance under the high ball, especially under the early, wind-assisted bombardment from Rory Kockott, when Castres still had notions of being competitive. Johann van Graan was suitably impressed.
“That was the best he has played since I arrived at Thomond Park,” declared the recently appointed Munster head coach. “I thought he had three high balls in the first ten minutes in that wind and he caught all three brilliantly and his kicking game was outstanding.”
“The things that people won’t see is his off the ball work and that try – I haven’t spoke to him yet – but once he saw that try-line he just went for it. Very happy about that performance and in games like these you need your star players to come through. Zeebs was certainly one of them tonight and credit to all 23 guys who took the pitch. Very happy about that.”
Zebo is a one-off, and accordingly van Graan could not compare him to any other player when asked to do so afterwards. “Zeebs is completely unique and the two of us have struck a very strong relationship early. When I came it was already known that he was going away and our first chat was ‘listen you have got a few months left at Munster, let’s take it day by day and make it your best few months’.”
“He has bought into it every single day, he is a player for the big stage and tonight was a big stage and he came through.”
It’s not just Zebo. While Sunday’s win was founded on traditional virtues, and notably the grunt of the pack at set-piece time in wearing down Castres, there were still telling flourishes from the back three.
Collectively, Munster’s outside backs are getting their hands on the ball more and their strike rate has increased accordingly, noticeably so in the case of Keith Earls. He has already scored five tries in eight games for Munster this season, compared to three in 15 last season.
‘Oul man Earls is actually still only 30, but is playing as well as ever. He’s always had wheels, footwork and adept finishing but, happy in his body and his mind, he is continuing on from his rich vein of form with Ireland last season (nine tries in ten games). Earls’s confidence is manifest in his counter-attacking and ability to link with team-mates. This is especially true in tandem with Zebo, the two gave the other try-scoring assists on Sunday.
Reaching the semi-finals in the European Champions Cup and final of the Pro14 was a commendable achievement last season, and an emotionally driven response to the loss of Anthony Foley. But there was a recognition that they had hit a glass ceiling with their game in the defeats to Saracens and the Scarlets, from Rassie Erasmus all the way down. This has been quickly addressed by van Graan and Felix Jones, while at the same time he and new defensive coach JP Ferreira have not sought to tamper unduly with the defensive systems put in place by Jacques Nienaber.
“We knew the Castres game was make or break. And most important are the relationships with the people around me. I said from day one, ‘this is not about me’
“One of the things I got from Rassie was when he said, ‘they played so well throughout the year and then in May, they fell a bit short’. We are well set in the Pro14 and in terms of Champions Cup, Munster and Europe has a pretty special relationship, so for me as an individual, it is important we get through to the quarter-finals.
Make or break
“We knew it [the Castres game]) was make or break. And most important are the relationships with the people around me. I said from day one, ‘this is not about me’. I think relationships are well set. We as coaches will take an eagle view about our game and our players. We have set new goals for the guys who will stay behind for the next block of games. I will stay in touch with the Irish squad.
“I will learn a lot from Joe [Schmidt] and his coaches over the next few days and weeks and once we get back in a few days’ time, we will re-adjust, set new goals. It is Zebre first. And again, a wider view to the quarter-final. It is a long way in the future. We will be looking to develop our game and keep our building blocks in place.”
Indeed, despite more upheavals this season off the pitch and plenty of injuries on it, not least a change of head coaches in mid-season which has been handled seamlessly by all concerned, Munster are a better, less predictable attacking force than last season.