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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 2°C
# creative influence
Wing Simon Zebo provides the unknown amidst Ireland's intelligent planning
The Cork man says he won’t sacrifice the game plan just to get his hands on the ball.

IN A TEAM built intelligently around detailed plans, structures and power plays, Simon Zebo is a player who provides an element of the unknown for Ireland.

Simon Zebo Ryan Byrne / INPHO Zebo is having a fine championship for Ireland. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

We’ve seen it only in glimpses in 2015, two moments during the win over Italy standing out.

First, Zebo collected the ball in the second receiver position with Ireland attacking from right to left close to the Italy 22. The Munster wing assessed the defensive line in front of him, identifying the weakness in a split second.

With hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, second row Josh Furno and flanker Francesco Minto closest to him, Zebo recognised the potential to create.

Situation summed up, he pulled out that inimitable goose step of his to get outside Ghiraldini and Furno, while pulling Minto in towards him, essentially tying down three defenders, and then released his pass for Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw to break up the left.

ZEEBS RBS Six Nations RBS Six Nations

The try-scoring chance was wasted, but just minutes later Zebo was at it again. This time he was the first receiver and fired a long right-handed pass to the same touchline to allow Jared Payne to gallop to within five metres of the tryline.

Again, the opportunity was missed, but the moment of skill underlined that Zebo can still bring something different to the mix.

ZEEBS 2 RBS Six Nations RBS Six Nations

Both examples come with Ireland in phase attack, forcing Italy into ruck after ruck, tackle after tackle. Zebo provides the creative spark when the defence begins to tire or numbers-up poorly on one side.

That said, how often does Zebo find himself infield like this? Does he need to be further encouraged to roam off his wing and get into first or second receiver?

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The 24-year-old simply wants to do the best job he can in his given role, even if that means he doesn’t get a huge number of touches in the opposition half again next weekend in Cardiff.

“I try as much as possible,” says Zebo of coming off his wing. “If the game is going that way, where I can get in a little bit then I will, but the games just haven’t gone that way. There is only so much that you can do.

You’ve got to hold your width and got to help the team basically. You can’t be just being too selfish and coming in for no reason. If Wales decide to open up the game and throw it around, I might get a few more touches.

“But the way things are going I’m pretty happy regardless of getting limited ball. It’s all about winning and we are doing that so far. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going.”

With Wales’ penchant for bringing their wings up into the defensive line and blitzing hard, it seems unlikely that wide passing will be the order of the day for Ireland, so it might be that Zebo is sent haring after accurate kicks again.

Simon Zebo Ryan Byrne / INPHO Under the watchful eye of Schmidt. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The Cork man has chased superbly for Ireland in this competition, although he laughs off a question about the Welsh wings and their positioning.

“I can’t be giving away all my secrets and Joe’s plans! If there is space there, no matter where it is, we will look for it. If it is in the back field or the front line, we make the right decisions and find the space.”

Wales’ attacking blueprint seems similarly well known to how their defence operates at this stage, but Zebo indicates that Ireland simply cannot take Warren Gatland’s tactics for granted ahead of next weekend.

The Welsh directness in attack over the last number of years doesn’t mean Gatland’s side are going to carry hard in narrow channels against Ireland.

“Not necessarily, because if you think they are going to go direct, they will ship it out the back to Liam Williams or George North who have serious feet as well as power,” explains Zebo.

“You can’t set anything in stone and predict they are going to be really direct against us. We are going to have to be prepared for anything.”

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