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'We’ve got a lot of world-class players in our back three' - Zebo misses out

The experienced fullback has missed out on a start for the clash with Racing 92.

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade Chaban Delmas

AS MUNSTER WENT through their captain’s run in Bordeaux today – a shortened version taking into account the heat – Simon Zebo stood out in a green bib with every other player on the pitch wearing orange Munster t-shirts.

It wasn’t quite a statement of his individuality as much as simply forgetting to bring his orange top, but it was somewhat symbolic in a week in which he proved to be the odd one out in Munster’s back three selection.

Simon Zebo dejected after being forced to leave the field with injury Zebo was emotional as he left the pitch against Racing. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Head coach Johann van Graan has opted to drop the 35-times capped Ireland international to Munster’s bench for tomorrow’s Champions Cup semi-final clash with Racing 92 in Stade Chaban Delmas [KO 3.15pm Irish time, BT Sport].

Alex Wootton will line out on one wing, with the returning Keith Earls on the other and Andrew Conway moving into the 15 shirt, where he excelled after Zebo departed the quarter-final win over Toulon due to injury.

Zebo is fully fit again but Munster have gone for Wootton’s form and Conway’s threat from fullback for this huge game, leaving a great deal of experience in reserve.

We’ve got a lot of world-class players in our back three,” said van Graan after Munster’s run-out when asked what the thinking behind the decision was.

“Keith Earls is back, Alex Wootton and Simon Zebo. Darren Sweetman didn’t make the 23. Calvin Nash is playing some good rugby.

“The plan that we have about finishing this game, they have quality on their bench, you have to have subs coming on and that’s the way you win.”

Zebo’s creativity does give Munster the ability to change things up in the second half if they are chasing a win, but it’s hard to see beyond the fact that his form has dipped in recent times.

23-year-old Wootton has been excellent for the province, scoring eight tries in the Pro14 and making three starts in the Champions Cup, notching a try against Castres in the pool stages.

A view of a match ball One of tomorrow's match balls. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“His ground breaks, his ball-carrying ability, his defence,” said van Graan on the topic of what it has been about Wootton that has impressed him most.

“I think about the Glasgow game when he ran back to make that cover tackle. He’s been consistent, his off-the-ball work has been pretty exceptional.”

While Wootton has earned his shot, the decision to leave Zebo on the bench remains a surprising one.

The 28-year-old is, of course, moving to Racing this summer and his future coach, Laurent Travers, indicated that he expects Zebo to make an impact off the bench tomorrow.

“I won’t make a comment on the opposition team and how they are organised; it’s the coach’s choice and if he has put in Simon Zebo as a substitute then he’s planning something in his mind,” said Travers.

“We know the talent of Simon Zebo and he has a reason to put him on the bench. There’s always a purpose.

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“We know today it’s a 23-man squad, and he has planned something specific with that.”

Sitting alongside van Graan at the captain’s run press conference were CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony, both sweating after their short session on the pitch in Bordeaux.

Alex Wootton Alex Wootton starts for Munster tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Managing the impact of the heat will be important for both teams tomorrow, as van Graan is aware.

“I think it will be a factor,” he said. “It’s really hot out there, even hotter than we anticipated so that will definitely be a challenge in tomorrow’s game. A lot of humidity, the ball will be sweaty and wet as well.”

While the exact timing of water breaks during each half has not yet been confirmed, EPCR indicated that it is likely such intervals will take place as the temperature is set to hit 27°C tomorrow.

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Murray Kinsella

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