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Dublin: 16 °C Monday 6 July, 2020

'It felt like the first time in a while where we were properly enjoying ourselves'

Simon Zebo was superb in attack as Ireland hammered Italy in Saturday.

SATURDAY IN THE Aviva Stadium was a timely reminder to Ireland and their supporters that rugby can be a whole lot of fun.

On a delightfully mild day in Dublin, Joe Schmidt’s side ran in nine tries in a 58-15 win, some of those scores featuring accurate passing and risky offloading. Italy were dire and failed to ensure there was a contest of any sort, but most fans left with a bounce in their step.

Simon Zebo with Leonardo Sarto Zebo was a thorn in Italy's side all afternoon. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Certainly Schmidt’s players will have benefited from the facile exercise of taking the Italians apart. They played with smiles on their faces for the first time in months and their struggles for confidence in recent weeks will have been somewhat remedied.

“It felt like one of those days, it felt like the first time in a while where we were properly enjoying ourselves out there,” said fullback Simon Zebo afterwards.

Maybe that was down to the weather, but it was an exciting day to be a part of and everyone out there was playing with a high tempo and a smile on their face. I think we were really dangerous at times and it shows.”

Zebo was as threatening and effective in attack as any other Irish player and more so than most. Two clean linebreaks, 83 metres gained, four defenders beaten, two superb offloads – the stats back up the strong impression the Munster man made on Saturday.

“We were going out there to attack,” said Zebo. “We were taking quick-tap penalties early on and things like that, we weren’t kicking the ball as much in the opposition 22. We were backing ourselves and that was exciting to see and exciting to be a part of.

“It’s coming from everywhere, we were in the groove, in the zone a bit. Every attacking option we called seemed to be working out there and getting gain-line. We went out there with a positive mindset and I think it showed in the end in terms of how we tried to play the game.”

Simon Zebo offloads to Jared Payne Zebo's offload for the Heaslip try was exceptional. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland had eight different try scorers, though Zebo was rather surprisingly not among them. His greatest work was done in assisting and prompting others onto the ball, nowhere more obviously than in his gorgeous one-handed offload to Jared Payne in the build-up to Jamie Heaslip’s first score.

For now, Zebo’s Ireland try count remains on seven in 24 caps.

“It was a good try, very good,” said Zebo of that first Heaslip effort. “It’s one of those things, you don’t mind not being on the end of it once it’s a five pointer. That’s good enough for me, I was just happy to be involved in it.

I think I’m having fun when those sort of things start to happen for me. And you know, it was probably the first dry day I’ve played in since the World Cup, so the ball was gripping to the fingers quite easily. It just felt good, felt fun for the first time in a while.

“I was probably stopped short about four times! It wasn’t meant to be. I think we had enough try scorers out there today which was great to see. We were all working hard, it started up front and they gave us the platform to go out and score and we’re happy with it.”

Zebo was again wearing strapping on his knee, though he indicated that the protection was simply on account of a “bang” sustained against Wales in round one – an injury that forced him to miss the France game.

With Rob Kearney preferred at fullback by Joe Schmidt for the defeat to England, Zebo was more motivated than ever on Saturday to demonstrate that he can be Ireland’s first-choice 15 moving forward.

inpho_01031216 Zebo gives Ireland a second playmaker on the pitch. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Certainly his attacking display again underlined that the Munster man allows Ireland to play with greater variety and distribution, though Kearney is a Schmidt favourite.

“Ah, I just try and enjoy myself and I’ll try and enjoy myself this week, train well and see what happens,” said Zebo about the impending selection call for Saturday’s final round clash with Scotland.

Whoever does get the nod at the back will be opposing Stuart Hogg, one of the players of the tournament so far and an excitement machine in Vern Cotter’s side.

“He’s an exciting player,” said the similarly-minded Zebo. “He plays heads-up rugby and he’s got a lot of pace. He’s very dangerous and every time he gets the ball he seems to get gain line, so he’ll be someone that we’ll be trying to nullify next week if we’re to go on and get the victory.”

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Murray Kinsella

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