Simon Zebo and the boys of ‘06 still looking to emulate heroes
Zebo: “Europe’s the main drive and ambition in this club, to get that golden nugget”
Munster’s Simon Zebo in action against Castres last weekend. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
There were many little vignettes from last Monday’s documentary Anthony Foley: Munsterman on RTE. Amongst those in the Red Army who made the trek to the Millennium Stadium and witnessed Munster reaching their Holy Grail for Foley to finally lift the trophy were a young Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo.
O’Mahony and Murray were brought over by their respective fathers, John and Gerry, and Zebo by his uncle Neil Geary. Murray had just turned 17, O’Mahony and Zebo were 16. It fired their ambition to play for their native province even more, and to emulate their heroes in the competition Munster have given so much to, and has given so much to Munster.
All three have gone on to become the new standardbearers with their native province. O’Mahony is five games short of joining Murray and Zebo as centurions with Munster, as well as becoming established at Test level. O’Mahony is Munster’s captain, and Zebo their record try scorer with 55 and counting in just 123 appearances.
Yet one of the biggest boxes they’ve yet to tick is emulating Foley and co.
“Yea, it is. It’s a void that needs to be filled,” agreed Zebo in the build-up to tomorrow’s meeting with Racing 92. “That’s the main drive and ambition in this club, to get that golden nugget. It’s the European trophy that we’re trying to get so hard. A lot of the guys who were in the stand that day are in their prime now and are leaders in this team.
"We’re the ones who can take it home.”
They’ve been close, but not close enough. There have been five semi-finals (and one quarter-final) in the intervening nine years. Zebo has played in the last three semi-final defeats, and O’Mahony and Murray in two of them. Yet after their many miraculous escapes, even Munster had three group exits in that time, which shows how treacherous these pool stages can be.
After drawing what looked like their most winnable away game in a tough group against Castres last Sunday, beating the expensively assembled Racing at home looks almost imperative.
“It would go a long way in getting us some momentum,” admits Zebo. “We were probably lucky enough to come away with the two points (against Castres), but it was a tough place to go in their first game of the season in Europe, at home. They’re a proud club. Looking back on it, we probably had chances to win it but a draw is probably a fair reflection.”
Zebo cites the penalty count of 11 as a primary flaw in their performance, adding: “and then the last 20 minutes of the game, being ruthless enough to close it out. Yea, there were some silly penalties and it was probably us not being ruthless or cold-blooded enough to get the win. If Saracens were playing that game they would have won it. If other teams were playing they’d have won it.
"We’ve time to rectify that and get our mind-frame back on being the dominant, top European team we can be.”
Zebo was as culpable as anyone. He’s good mates with Conor Murray, although joining him in the sin bin within the first ten minutes would have been taking this too far. “I thought I was gone,” he admits when his one-handed knockdown merely resulted in a penalty moments after Murray’s hand-trip off the ball on the other wing.
In truth, one of the most positive aspects of last Sunday was Zebo’s own hard-running, inventive and try-scoring display following his three-week absence with an infected leg wound. He has always enjoyed the hard tracks and warm sunshine of the south of France.
“Yea, it was very nice. Good fun,” he admits, beaming broadly as ever. “It was nice to play with a dry ball, to get out running. It was a hostile enough environment which was enjoyable too. It wasn’t our smartest performance of the year, but we fronted up physically and hopefully we’ll improve this weekend.”
He knows they’ll need to. He describes the Racing backline as, simply, world class. “They’ve got pace all over it, poach threats, big hitters. They’re good aerially, they’ve slick hands, they’ve the full arsenal.
“So I think our forwards will have a big job in slowing down their momentum and trying to win some collisions in defence so that their backline don’t get front-foot ball. It has all the makings of a great game. Hopefully we get the weather to hold that up because we’ve got a very exciting backline ourselves.”
And Dan Carter, he believes, is still the man. “Definitely. With somebody of his ability and talent he can change a game just like that. If he gets an injury free run of form then everyone will be talking about him being the best in the world still. He’s still world class.”
Come 5.30, Munster are going to require one of their big Thomond Park performances.
“We need to hit the ground running from the get-go. Definitely, there’s no better place to play than a night-time kick-off in Thomond Park, European rugby. It just doesn’t get better. I’m very, very excited. There’s a great buzz around the changing-room, everybody’s really excited to right a few wrongs.”
“The atmosphere, you can’t compare it to anywhere else. It’s so unique, there’s a different air about the place when it comes to European rugby.
"It could be anything, it could be a knock-on or a forward pass - they scream as loud as if it was an end to end seven-pointer.
“So, it’s probably daunting for opposition to come and play for. It’s incredible for us. They’re the 16th man and there’s no other words to describe it. You have to be out in the middle of the pitch to really know what it’s like.”