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Six Nations: Ireland have flair to dazzle, says Simon Zebo

By Jonathan Bradley

Risk and reward, you imagine, is a phrase Ireland's Simon Zebo has heard more than once throughout his rugby career. If there are times when top-level sport, with all the pitfalls of professionalism, can appear to be verging on the staid, the Munsterman seems intent on providing an antidote, even when the stakes are as high as a Six Nations opener such as Saturday's clash with Scotland (2.25pm kick-off).

With the introduction of bonus points for this year's championship, not forgetting a new high-tackle directive that should theoretically promote the offload, offering increased encouragement for attacking play, perhaps now is a time that he and his ilk are needed more than ever.

"If I go with my gut instinct, nine times out of 10 I feel like it'll come off," he said ahead of this afternoon's team announcement for the weekend's Murrayfield meeting.

"It's risk and reward really. If I make a mistake, I'll live with it.

"Rugby careers are too short to be playing with that kind of fear."

It is now four years since he burst onto the Six Nations scene with an audacious flick of the foot to collect a Jamie Heaslip pass and set up a score for Cian Healy against Wales in Cardiff, a piece of skill that was last week voted into a top 10 of the Six Nations era's most memorable moments.

But it hasn't all been plain sailing since.

Having been out of favour in the early going of Joe Schmidt's reign, even if he did become something of a cause celebre in many quarters, the versatile virtuoso appears to be a more rounded player these days, even if he thinks he's lost nothing of his flair.

"Looking back, I'm proud I stuck to my beliefs in how I play the game and having no fear to try things," he said.

"In what was my first Six Nations game, that was evident. I'm quite proud of my younger self.

"I still go out and try and play the way I did at 19 or 20, play with a smile on my face.

"I back myself to do things that ultimately contribute to winning matches. I try to go out there with that spirit and obviously there are areas you have to improve as you get older.

"In terms of my mindset, I haven't changed. I've done alright so far so if I continue to improve I can do even better.

"I'm still only 26, I still have a long way to get better.

"I probably won't be at my best until I'm 28 or 29, I would feel anyway.

"I still have a good bit to go but personally I feel like I'm getting there.

"I'm excited about the way I've been playing and the way that we are trying to play in Munster and in Ireland, so hopefully we can keep playing in this positive way and hopefully I can play as much as I can."

While that hasn't always been the case - he has featured in a little over half of Ireland's games since making his debut against New Zealand in 2012 - the Cork native admits that it would be especially galling to miss out this weekend, even with the plethora of options at Schmidt's disposal.

While Zebo can operate at full-back or on the wing, featuring more and more at 15 for his province, Rob Kearney, Tiernan O'Halloran, Keith Earls and, fitness permitting, Andrew Trimble are all also vying for spots in the back-three.

"Yeah, it would be very tough to be honest," he said.

"I'd back myself when I'm playing well to play. So if I'm playing well, and then not playing, then I'm not going to be happy.

"There's loads of options here as well. There's a few different combinations that the coaching staff can go with so, yeah, we back ourselves and the competition for places in training is quite high.

"It is driving the best out of the players who are really competing.

"Whatever combination is picked, then playing or not playing, whatever, we're confident in the 15 or 23 that go out there."

It is a similar story on Saturday for the Scots who boast plenty of finishers out wide.

If things had gone differently, Zebo and Tommy Seymour could have been international team-mates but, as it is, the American-born, Ulster-bred wing who tops the PRO12 scoring charts could well be his opposite number in Murrayfield, while the likes of Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland are also proven performers.

"Tommy is a classy operator," Zebo said.

"They have plenty of strength in depth. You know, he's another player who has had a very good season," he added.

"They have Sean Maitland, (Tim) Visser, they have loads of players that they can pick from who are quality finishers and dangerous runners, so we're fully aware of their talents and danger out wide," he said.

"Stuart Hogg can do magical things on the pitch. He is a good friend of mine as well.

"He's a class operator and I love the way he plays.

"He is very exciting and he plays with no fear. We'll be doing well to nullify him."

Similar words, no doubt, to those being spoken about Zebo in the Scottish capital.

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