ANYONE THAT WITNESSED the football-style flick that led to Cian Healy’s try against Wales or a warm-up session before a Munster or Ireland match will tell you than Simon Zebo has pure, unabashed skill.
Zebo took part in athletics, soccer, hurling and football as a youth and still dabbles in these sporting pursuits during his down-time from rugby.
In a Newstalk interview last month, Zebo revealed how his junior hurling career gave him a skill-set that he has taken into the world of professional rugby. He said, “Playing GAA, you have to be a little tough. Taking a couple of hurleys across the shins, that toughens you up.”
TheScore.ie contacted Blackrock ‘Rockies’, his former hurling club, and asked some of the people that witnessed young Master Zebo in action on GAA fields across Cork.
Zebo in control of the ball on a midfield burst. (Credit: George Hatchell)
Brother Patrick Fitzgibbon, chairman of the Blackrock underage section, spoke with enthusiasm about a talented midfielder that made regular forays forward when his team needed a scoring boost. Bro. Fitzgibbon:
Simon had great speed, was very light on his feet and had a natural talent for the game. He played with that Blackrock style of play with a quick wrist and the ability to get the ball away with a snap before he could be closed down. He was difficult to track down and stop. A real loss to Cork hurling, let me tell you.”
“You could see at the age of 12 and 13 that he was destined for great things,” he added. “He could run all day and had an innate ability to pick out a teammate with a pass.”
Rugby comes calling
Rugby came calling for Zebo, at a competitive level, when he went to school at Presentation College. He teachers at Beaumont Boys School [primary] will attest that he did some scoring damage on their behalf before that and he played for Cork Constitution’s underage teams as a teenager.
“He never missed a game for us though,” said Bro. Fitzgibbon.
“He was a leader; a very friendly young fella. He was very outgoing and made friends easily.”
While Rockies are challenging for titles across the age grades, Zebo’s team, which featured former Cork Minor hurler Richard Dineen, were not destined for greatness. High-scoring wins and positive runs were plentiful but they were often edged out by the odd point in a crucial semi-final or must-win encounter.
A Cork City Championship Final win in 2004, for Zebo the U-14, was the team’s high point.
Safety first: Zebo in the yellow helmet. (Credit: George Hatchell)
Looking through match reports on the Blackrock Hurling Club website, there are numerous mentions of Zebo’s involvement in vital goals and points.
On 11 March 2006, for example, St Finbarr’s took the lead before ‘the Rockies responded with a fine goal from Simon Zebo’. In that 2004 Championship win ‘Zebo and David Hill reasserted their first-half dominance and the ball was again heading into the Na Piarsaigh half’.
In a 4-8 to 0-1 win over Midleton in 2003, full forward Zebo slotted over four quick points from play. He ‘could not be contained’ during this period. In 2002, an even younger Zebo had stand-out matches as centre-back, midfielder and full forward.
“He was a team player,” recalled Bro. Fitzgibbon. “He had a great awareness of where his teammates where and would not go for a shot if they were better placed.”
Of all the memories that the underage chairman has of Zebo, a goal does not top the list.
He said, “It was at Under 14s against Na Piarsaigh. I think they lost the game by a point or two but Simon set up a goal to give his side hope. He was being chased by two lads in the midfield yet picked out Conor Kilcoyne with a 50-metre pass. He drove it home for a great goal.”
Coming tomorrow: Simon Zebo in action for St Michael’s Gaelic Football team