Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# Champions Cup
Man for the big occasion Zebo in place to realise Racing dream
The Munster man moved to Paris for opportunities like this.

THE SEATS OF ASHTON Gate was never the backdrop Simon Zebo would have pictured if he allowed himself dream of a big day out with Racing 92.

Still, to run out with 15 on his back and the European Cup on the line? Yeah, that’s the stuff.

Whatever the unforeseeable circumstances of this belated culmination of the 2019/20 season, days like this are precisely what he hoped to gain from a move to Paris.

The Corkman has that wonderful tendency to rise to the bigger occasions. His outrageous skill-set, and the confidence to use it,gives him the ability break deadlocks in the tightest of circumstances.

Lamentably, he was not given the opportunity to showcase that ability with Ireland in his final year with Munster. His last Test came against Japan during the summer tour of 2017; Jacob Stockdale made his debut the same month and the prolific Ulster man was the beneficiary as the replaced Munster man was frozen out once he agreed to move to Racing 92.

simon-zebo INPHO / Billy Stickland INPHO / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

Zebo was not yet a Racing man when they they last featured in the Heineken Champions Cup final – a narrow loss to Leinster in 2018.  Indeed, he scored a try as Munster attempted to oust them at the semi-final stage.

Munster, though, have a knack of making the final four of Europe feel akin to baseline. And, since 2009, once they reach that point they have found themselves swimming valiantly against a tide of the continent’s deeper pockets.

The shoe is on the other foot with the champagne-swirling, blazer-boasting, Jackie Lorenzetti-backed Racing. They may be slight underdogs against the Exeter Chiefs – who boast their own Irish contingent in Gareth Steenson and Ian Whitten - today (kick-off 16.45, BT Sport and Channel 4) as both sides chase a first European title.

Yet after dumping Saracens out, Le Ciel et Bleu will be bullish approaching the final hurdle after a week bubbling up in Corsica.

simon-zebo Ryan Hiscott / INPHO Zebo and Donnacha Ryan during the captain's run at Ashton Gate in Bristol yesterday. Ryan Hiscott / INPHO / INPHO

Zebo has not always been an automatic first-choice in the Racing back-line, but what a back-line it is as he takes his place behind the mercurial Finn Russell and the sublime Teddy Iribaren and within a back three that also boasts Juan Imhoff and Louis Dupichot with no room for Teddy Thomas this time around.

The other Munster man in the Paris club’s playing ranks, Donnacha Ryan, will hope to make his presence felt as a replacement as Bernard Le Roux returns from injury to partner Dominic Bird. Ryan already has a winner’s medal for this competition tucked away as he was a replacement in 2008, two years before Zebo made his debut for his native province. How they both must crave the chance to cradle the Champions Cup today.

The fullback got the call to start ahead of Kurtley Beale and the mouth waters at the contest he and his opposite number Stuart Hogg are capable of offering up.

Exeter have other game-breakers of course, and they will surely need the languid talent of Henry Slade and his kicking range to move their opponents around.

One false move will invite pressure back. Racing boast the best record in the competition for both defenders beaten (229) and tries on kick returns (7). As for clean breaks, well, the top three places belong to Racing.

Zebo is not among the trio, but with a starting role today he will have a chance to make an indelible a mark on Racing 92 history.

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Exeter Chiefs

15. Stuart Hogg
14. Jack Nowell
13. Henry Slade
12. Ian Whitten
11. Tom O’Flaherty
10. Joe Simmonds (captain)
9. Jack Maunder

1. Alec Hepburn
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie
3. Harry Williams
4. Jonny Gray
5. Jonny Hill
6. Dave Ewers
7. Jacques Vermeulen
8. Sam Simmonds


16. Jack Yeandle
17. Ben Moon
18. Tomas Francis
19. Sam Skinner
20. Jannes Kirsten
21. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
22. Gareth Steenson
23. Ollie Devoto

Racing 92

15. Simon Zebo
14. Louis Dupichot
13. Virimi Vakatawa
12. Henry Chavancy (Captain)
11. Juan Imhoff
10. Finn Russell
9. Teddy Iribaren

1. Eddy Ben Arous
2. Camille Chat
3. Georges Henri Colombe
4. Bernard Le Roux
5. Dominic Bird
6. Wenceslas Lauret
7. Fabien Sanconnie
8. Antonie Claassen


16. Teddy Baubigny
17. Hassane Kolingar
18. Ali Oz
19. Donnacha Ryan
20. Boris Palu
21. Maxime Machenaud
22. Olivier Klemenczak
23. Kurtley Beale


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