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Simon Zebo was true to his manifesto, and that distinguished him from the herd – The Irish Times

Written by on June 3, 2024

On Ireland’s gruelling tour to New Zealand in the summer of 2012 Simon Zebo was a bolter for the first Test. His breakthrough season with Munster yielded a dozen tries, including five in the Heineken Cup, and in a game full of sturdy, admirable crows, Zebo was a pink flamingo, all swagger, strut and pretty feathers.

As a new cap he was marched into a press conference “beaming from ear to ear” and was asked what he thought he would bring to the team. His answer came in the form of a short manifesto that would dictate all future policy.

“I like to run with the ball,” Zebo said. “I like to attack a lot. I’ve been trying to work a lot on my defence but the thing I would like to bring all-round to the team, I feel, would be my attack side of things.”

Zebo was an unused sub for the second Test and did not make the match-day squad for the final match, a 60-0 annihilation. But he returned to the team for the autumn internationals and kept his place for the early rounds of the following year’s Six Nations.

In Cardiff, on February 2nd, 2013, he produced something that was not just instinctive and thrilling, but unique. It was not a version of something else; nobody had done it before; nobody has attempted it since. It’s not available in karaoke.

Under pressure, Jamie Heaslip threw a soft, dipping pass that was slightly behind Zebo and in any case too low to catch in full stride. The ball travelled about six metres in little over a second. The average brain can generate about 45 thoughts a minute. Zebo didn’t have that kind of time.

So, he greeted the ball with his tilted left boot, like a move from the Charleston, and flipped it on to his forearm and then into his hands. As a game rugby has an orchestral quality, with many different instruments and pages upon pages of sheet music that must be learned. But in that moment Zebo had produced a note that had never been played before.

“What did he do with that?” said Conor O’Shea during the RTÉ commentary. “That was footballing skills from somewhere.”

And that was precisely the point about Zebo. Wherever the impulse for that move had originated it was imported from some place foreign to rugby. The beauty of Zebo as a rugby player was that he was a mosaic of other influences.

Even though he took a conventional path from Presentation Brothers College, a well-known rugby school, through Cork Constitution to Munster’s academy, he successfully navigated the system without surrendering his individuality. On parallel tracks during his teenage years in Cork, Zebo continued to play hurling with Blackrock, Gaelic football with St Michaels and soccer with Avondale United. All of it fired his imagination.

Zebo grew up in a housing estate behind Blackrock’s hurling pitch and played for them until his career path forced him to pick one sport. But they still talk about a goal he scored in an under-16s match, when time was up and Blackrock were three points down, praying for a bolt of lightning.

One of the selectors beseeched Zebo to try something, a plea that might not have been necessary. In any case, he shot for a goal from more than 50 yards out and the ball flew into the net.

“He had an unmerciful slap off a ball,” said Ger Mahony, one of the Blackrock mentors, years later. “He could hit a ball as hard as I ever saw a man hit it. The referee came straight over and shook his hand.”

He was a brilliant Gaelic footballer too and Jamie Harrington, one of his former coaches in St Michaels, made an interesting observation once. “Hurling probably suited him better because as you get older football gets more structured – as rugby does. From that point of view there was more freedom for him in hurling.”

That is not as true of hurling as it once was. Modern hurling has a suite of ingrained behaviours that are designed to moderate risk. Across all team sports the tension between structure and risk is greater now than ever, and that was where Zebo pursued his career: in the febrile space between instruction and instinct, between safe and hairy.

The hackneyed term for a player like Zebo would be “mercurial”, with all that suggests about unpredictability. That description is not always applied as a compliment. Everyone loves a player with X-factor, until they’re caught out of position or miss a tackle or try a hero-play that dies in flames. Zebo never recoiled from cocking-up. That made him irresistibly attractive.

In every generation there are players who play to a different beat. In the early 1980s, for example, when Tony Ward was Ireland’s jinking outhalf, he could be electrifying to watch, but his team-mates often could not read his movements and, on balance, they would like to have seen a menu.

Ollie Campbell, a brilliant footballer too, offered a different balance between structure and risk and, ultimately, Ireland were happier with that. Pep Guardiola would have made the same choice.

Since the announcement of Zebo’s imminent retirement there has been a lot of discussion about his 35 Test caps and if his talent had warranted more. He agreed a deal with Racing 92 in October 2017 and by going to France he entered international exile in his late 20s.

Joe Schmidt was the Ireland coach and the view often expressed was that he did not fancy Zebo. Schmidt was obsessive about structure and detail and his successful Irish teams made very few unscripted movements. But in the two seasons before his decision to leave, Zebo made 20 appearances for Ireland, 15 of which had been starts.

The feedback was that Zebo’s work at the breakdown was not good enough. Defence was another thing. Detail. Munster worked with him on the issues that were flagged. When he took the job first Schmidt didn’t pick Zebo for the guts of a year, and yet 29 of his caps came on Schmidt’s watch. In some way he must have been seduced too.

Whatever adjustments Zebo conceded, the essence of his game was never sacrificed. He was different and daring and flamboyant and fun. He was true to his manifesto. That distinguished him from the herd.

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