Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Six Nations: Nerves won't bother Zebo

Simon Zebo is not apprehensive about taking on Wales

He is only 22 years of age but already Munster wing Simon Zebo has carved out a reputation for being the most laid-back player in the Ireland camp.

Nerves? He shows no sign of any ahead of what will be his first start in a RBS 6 Nations Championship match and only his fourth Irish outing.

His fellow-wing, Ulster’s Craig Gilroy, is 21. It will be his Six Nations bow, too, and only his second cap. So shouldn’t Zebo be slightly apprehensive about facing last season’s Grand Slam winners in their own stadium?

Again no hint of trepidation.

Asked if he ever suffers from nerves before a big match, he smiles as he replies: “Not really, no. Regardless of the game — Test match or a Rabo game or a Heineken game — it wouldn’t really affect me, nerves.

“I just like to relax before games so I wouldn’t really think about it too much or get too nervous. I’d be pretty confident in my abilities.

“There’s obviously some pretty hostile places you can go to, but I suppose I’m just lucky that I don’t get too nervous.

“I suppose my dad had something to do with that — he’s a pretty laid-back man as well.

“I just look at it (playing in big matches) as a great thing, not a bad thing.”

Seemingly it has been that way “since I was a young fella”.

“And I suppose when you take nerves out of the equation you can just concentrate on your own performance,” he adds.

The danger is that others might interpret that as a lack of commitment or a failure to grasp the importance of what is at stake.

“Ah yeah,” Zebo agrees. “People’s perception might be that you don’t take it seriously.”

If, at this point, you were expecting a promise to adopt a more sombre approach, sorry to disappoint. That’s not who Simon Zebo is. “I suppose I started playing rugby because I enjoyed it,” he points out. “I want to have fun and if I stop having fun then I’m going to stop playing rugby, so anybody who wants to look at that as a negative, well, look at it that way if you want and be bitter.

“But I’m just having fun. I’m playing rugby and enjoying my rugby and hopefully I can continue to play well.”

As befits an optimistic young man who has confidence in himself, ‘hopefully’ and ‘well’ are two words he uses a lot.

And when it comes to his assessment of Saturday’s opponent George North — just 20 years of age, but 6ft 4in and 16st 7lb of power, pace and problem-making with whom he must cope — the adjective Zebo uses, twice, is ‘excellent’.

“I think he’s an excellent player. He’s big, strong, fast. He’s got great high-ball skills and his off-loading skills are excellent as well so he’s just an all-round threat. I think he’s a very good player and he’s shown that over the past few seasons,” he reckons.

Seven defeats on the bounce notwithstanding, Zebo knows that North is not the only red-shirted dangerman Ireland will face in Cardiff.

“Wales are a very strong outfit, they’ve got some really big physical players. But it’s not just their physicality — they’ve got other attributes as well.

“The calibre of backs they have is going to test us. Hopefully we’ll be up for the challenge and hopefully we’ll perform,” he says.

Provided they do, Ireland have backs capable of delivering, too. With Gilroy and Zebo out wide and Rob Kearney at full-back, that’s a particularly potent back three.

The Munster man, who scored a hat-trick of tries in the 29-6 Heineken Cup rout of big-spending Racing Metro last time out, thereby ensuring his province’s inclusion in the quarter-finals and Leinster’s ejection from them, is excited about Ireland’s line-up behind the scrum.

“It has the potential to be a great back line,” he enthuses. “We’ve been working real hard and hopefully now come the weekend we’ll be able to produce and go out and give a good performance.”

The big talk in Irish rugby circles this week has been the news that Zebo’s back-line colleague, Leinster’s Jonny Sexton, is joining the French millionaires Munster destroyed at Thomond Park.

That opens up another intriguing avenue. Zebo’s father, Arthur, represented France as an 800-metres runner. And a few years ago the man who will wear Ireland’s number 11 jersey in Cardiff toyed with the idea of following the example of his father who left his native Martinique to try his luck in France.

“Absolutely, yeah, definitely. I would have been able to speak (the language), I have family over there in Paris and I’ve relatives down south in Toulouse as well,” Zebo says.

“But I was a young fella, very young — 16 or 17 and thinking about a Senior Cup and wondering how far you could go in rugby.

“It was just a few jokes, I suppose, with the likes of Peter O’Mahony and a few of the fellas at (Cork) Con where we were saying that if it didn’t work out we’d be on the next plane over together.”

It didn’t happen and Munster and Ireland have been the beneficiaries of that. Having turned up the heat on Racing Metro 11 days ago, ultra-cool Simon Zebo will be aiming to do the same to Wales two days hence.

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