Simon Zebo still wants to live the dream with Munster success

Win over Toulouse in Thomond Park is latest challenge on way to Champions Cup glory

Munster fullback Simon Zebo: “We’ve played for Axel in the right way, we’ve channelled the emotion in the right direction.” Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Munster fullback Simon Zebo: “We’ve played for Axel in the right way, we’ve channelled the emotion in the right direction.” Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

 

Simon Zebo was just 15 when he travelled with his uncle Neil Geary by ferry and car to Cardiff for the 2006 Heineken Cup final between Munster and Biarritz. He was on the PBC Junior Cup team and playing for Cork Con, but being one of the 74,534 in attendance that day sealed the deal. He wanted it too. More than anything.

Sometimes, an era of high achievement, especially when followed by a relatively fallow period, can weigh a team or an organisation down. Comparisons can be odious. Only scaling those heights again can satisfy. Or it can inspire.

Ever since that day, and all the more so when Munster regained the trophy in 2008, emulating those boyhood heroes has been Zebo’s dream.

“European success with Munster is at the top of the list with everything. It’s just been a boyhood dream since I was so young. Seeing Axel [Foley] lifting the trophy, and then Paulie [Paul O’Connell], it just gives you goose bumps. And to see what it did for the province. This is home for me and my family, and that is why it would be so special. There’s no place like it. So to win here would be absolutely ridiculous.”

He watched the 2008 final against Toulouse with his family at home in Cork. “It was a little quieter.” By then, not surprisingly, he’d also developed a grá for Toulouse, long since his favourite French team.

“It was another incredible experience just watching how crazy Munster went. Everywhere you went, whether it was Cork, Limerick, Kerry or wherever, there were just red shirts everywhere. I’d love to experience that success.”

Of that day of May days in 2006, Zebosays: “The one thing I remember most is looking at the [big] screen and seeing O’Connell Street back here [in Limerick]. They could have filled the Millennium Stadium out twice. No other club would have that kind of fanbase and support.

“It made me think, ‘I want to be out on that pitch one day’. And I have been, but not in a final, where I want to be with Munster. We have a generation of players at their peak or coming into their peak, so if we’re ever going to do it, it’s got to be soon.”

Knock-out stages

That said, Munster, having been regulars in the knock-out stages for a dozen seasons in a row missed out on the quarter-finals in 2011 and again in the last two seasons. That was hard to take.

“That’s sick. There’s nothing worse. That is stress, not qualifying, because we’re so used to it, playing those big games in Thomond Park or with the travelling support, wherever we go. Watching on the couch or watching your Irish counterparts experience those days is even harder. So we know how lucky we are to be in the position we’re in, and we’ve got to take advantage of that now,” Zebo says.

As ever, the winger is in ebullient mood. It was almost therapeutic being in his company earlier this week at Munster’s High Performance Centre in UL.

“Life is too short not to have fun and enjoy yourself. No matter what comes my way I’ll try to do it with a smile on my face,” he says.

Zebo turned 27 in the week of the Six Nations game against England. In theory though, as he says, “the next few years should be my best. Seeing the way Earlsy and Trimby are going into their 30s, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be.”

With the years has come fatherhood – he is dad to Jacob (two) and Sofia (seven months), and a changed perspective. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. You hear all the stories and people preparing you for X, Y and Z but until you’re actually a father you can’t really explain it. Just surreal,” he says.

His pride in them is manifest. “Jacob is at the age when I get to kick a ball around with him. I have him practising celebrations for when he’s old enough to go scoring some tries like his da. It’s fun. I love every minute of it.”

Family time

His lifestyle has also changed. Still living in his native Cork, he limits his nights away in weeks such as this to one, while otherwise making the return journey.

“The S&C [strength and conditioning] guys give out to me for too much driving during the week, but I want to get back to the kids. It’s only an extra day’s travelling, and it’s worth it; family time now as opposed to dancing on weekends as much as I used to. I’m more than happy with that.”

The best aspect of being a father? “The best thing about being a father is after seeing tears when you leave the house and then the smile when you go into the house. It’s incredible,” he says.

“My missus asked me this the other day. It makes you sick when they’re crying as you’re leaving, but then when you’re getting your gear bag out of the car they’re smiling and screaming, ‘Papa! Papa!’.’ Ah, it’s amazing.”

He is also full of praise for Elvira’s mothering of their two kids. “She’s excellent with them. She takes care of the house, the kids, all operations that go on in the Fernandez-Zebo household. She’s an incredible woman. Life is good.”

Elvira speaks to them in Spanish, Zebo’s dad Arthur in French, and himself in English. Jacob is picking up all three. He’ll be a linguist and a sportsman. “He’s mad into kicking a ball already, throwing it like Rory Best and kicking it like Johnny. Hopefully it will be rugby, but if not soccer. He has the Spanish blood in him.”

And he’ll support Arsenal. “Definitely. He has to. He’ll have ‘Henry’ on the back. I won’t lose the faith.”

Thomond factor

“Life is good,” Zebo says, not least because he is a professional sportsman. “It’s not work. It’s playing rugby, the same as when we were five or six years old.”

This is especially true in weeks such as this. Munster have achieved their base mark for success by reaching the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup.

Zebo agrees that Toulouse probably won’t be as spooked by the Thomond Park factor as they were in their first visit, at this juncture, three years ago.

“No. Not at all. They’ll be well-drilled for this game, but we’ve got that crowd which is massively valuable to us. There’s something different about this season, in our outlook as players, our development as players, and the stages we’re at as players, that we don’t fear playing anyone anywhere,” he says.

To a degree, sadly, this process has been accentuated by the passing of Anthony “Axel” Foley last October. The squad were already on an upward curve, but especially from the day when Munster hosted Glasgow, team and crowd alike have rediscovered what Munster and Thomond Park are about.

“That’s why I think the coaches and staff have been so incredible. We could have gone the other way totally. Players could have lost their heads. But we’ve played for Axel in the right way, we’ve channelled the emotion in the right direction, and a huge amount of that is down to the coaches,” he says.

“Yeah, I’m having some of the best times and moments in Thomond Park that I’ve ever had. It’s a special place to be.”

Close relationship

Come teatime on a Saturday in a big European night, there’s no place quite like it. “Nowhere I’ve been can compare, atmosphere-wise, to it. I’ve played in some pretty big stadiums, Wembley, Stade de France, Twickenham and the Clermont stadium, which is noisy, but nowhere comes anywhere near it.

“It’s like the fans understand every single detail of the game. You get cheered as much for a high ball as for running in a 40-metre try. It just shows what it means to the fans and the players. When you combine the two, it must be daunting playing against that in another coloured jersey. I wouldn’t like to experience it.”

As was the case for so many in Munster, Foley was more than a coach. “He was a great friend. I would have had him since I was about 19 on the under-20s. When you spend that amount of time with someone for so long you become really attached,” he says.

“I would have had a very close relationship with him. I can remember nights out and most of the best memories I have with him are off the pitch. I never got to play with him. A great coach. A great person. A great family man. You can see what he’s left behind.”

The ball didn’t quite go Zebo’s way in a tryless Six Nations on the left wing, although his form was good, and he will relish being back at fullback today. He has Lions’ ambitions too, but doesn’t allow himself to think about it much. “I’d be more focused on getting Munster further in this competition.”

Munster’s record try-scorer with 51 tries, he laughs heartily about his ambition to one day reach a century. Sadly, his grandfather, John Geary, who had always talked to Zebo about breaking the record, died just before he eclipsed Anthony Horgan’s mark of 41 in March of last year.

“I’ve got a beautiful photo at home of me scoring my 42nd and dedicated it to my grandfather.”

But while Zebo may be Munster’s record try-scorer, he’s far from sated, and won’t ever be until Munster realise those boyhood dreams.

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