Superstar full-back Simon Zebo has been telling RTE Sport that he still has ambitions to be a part of the Ireland side, and claims that the current setup would suit him better.
Zebo played the majority of his 35 international caps under the leadership of then-Head Coach, Joe Schmidt. The New Zealander led the Irish team to three Six Nations Championships, including a Grand Slam in 2018, and brought Ireland to number 1 in the World Rugby Rankings for the first time in their history in 2019, as well as recording their first-ever wins over New Zealand.
Schmidt, well known for his structured game plan, was superseded by Andy Farrell in early 2020. Zebo explains how different the Irish environment now is: “It’s very different now to what it was under Joe. There are a lot of players expressing themselves more so and they probably have a little bit more freedom. That’s not to say that Joe’s [game plan] didn’t work, it’s just a different style. Zebo then added: “This style would probably have suited me more in international rugby.”
Following his return from Racing 92 to join Munster, the Irish back-three player was once again called up to the national squad in 2021 after years of exile. He joined up with the squad ahead of the Autumn internationals that year but failed to see any game time; and to make things worse, he contracted Covid-19 shortly afterwards on Munster’s tour to South Africa – leaving him stranded.
“The Covid thing was the most frustrating thing,” he said when talking about the setbacks he’s had trying to get back into the international side. “Breaking my ribs was another thing but the stuff that was out of my control was a bit frustrating” he added.
The man from Cork was open about his conversations surrounding international selection, and the effects that injuries and other factors have had on his Ireland return.
“The chats [with Andy Farrell] were just around the general shape, trying to get me up to speed. I’d been playing a completely different way in Paris until I came back home.
“It was very much about understanding the way they were trying to play and the philosophy so that I could kick on, kick on play well with Munster and then be involved in Six Nations or whatever but it just didn’t work out with Covid and the South Africa nightmare.”
His injuries didn’t confine themselves to that of the green of Ireland, the red of Munster was also on tenterhooks whether Zebo would be match-ready or not.
“I would be able to play a game and then I’d be out for a couple of weeks with another injury and then I’d get a bit of form, training might go well, might play another game, and then another knock”. Zebo said, “It was just hit and miss. I didn’t have an ‘official injury’. I just had constant niggles and be available to play and then pull out at the last minute.
“It went on for so long and by the time the big games came around you have to back who’s playing and playing well. My body kind of let me down last year. It wasn’t a form thing, any game I played I played well. I didn’t play one bad game, it was a health issue more than anything.”
Zebo appreciates his increasing age is working against him, especially with the knowledge that he’s having to compete with the likes of much younger players like Shane Daly and Calvin Nash at Munster, and Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, and Mack Hansen at international level.
“You still have to show that you are hungry to play or you won’t play,” he says, conscious of the fact that hard work cannot be replaced.
“You can hold on to your experience, [that you’ve] been there done it and the highest level.
“Confidence in your own ability – I know there are things I can do on a rugby pitch that nobody else can do in the world. I just have to get my confidence and be healthy and get back-to-back games, as opposed to play one and be out for three.”
“Obviously I would have loved to play but there was no frustration,” he said about Munster’s incredible Champions Cup victory.
“I was very proud of the lads, it had been a long time since we’d played and won in a final, 12-odd years so it was fantastic. I was a very proud Munster man watching those games.”