Murray Kinsella reports from Paris
IT’S NO GREAT surprise that Simon Zebo is looking very well suited to the bright lights of Paris.
It was never likely to be any other way.
A showman to the core, a player whose celebrations are often joyous – and sometimes go too far – the Cork native is only a few months into his stay with Racing 92 and he’s already certain that his move from Munster was the right decision.
Visiting Paris La Défense Arena for Racing’s 44-12 win over Ulster on Saturday evening, it was clear why Zebo is feeling at home.
The pre-match show consists of cheerleaders, back-flipping acrobats, pumping music and an in-house big screen so big that American sports audiences would be impressed.
Zebo, who had a decent game against Ulster and scored their fifth try, is not just about the show-bizz side of things, however. Racing say they’ve been impressed with the game understanding that the Ireland international has brought to the mix, his playmaking and kicking skills becoming more influential each week.
His try against Ulster on Saturday made it seven scores in seven starts for the Top 14 club so far, and while there are still improvements for him to make in his game, it’s not been a bad start at all.
“It has definitely been everything I thought it would be and more,” said Zebo after Racing’s win. “I’m delighted I made the decision. It was a big decision for me to make considering what I had at home and that but I’m very happy I did.
“They are a great bunch of guys, a great coaching team. I’m playing in quality atmospheres every week, which is exciting. When you’re playing away from home you really feel that it is a little bit different in terms of the leagues.
“Change is always good and new is good. I’m enjoying it a lot and hopefully I can continue to do so.”
Zebo made up Racing’s back three with France international Teddy Thomas and Argentinian flyer Juan Imhoff against Ulster, a combination that looked sensational on paper and delivered in attack out on the pitch.
“Two very smart players, very quick, very good finishers, so it’s great to have them there,” said Zebo. “It just goes from one to 35, the squad depth is frightening. There’s international class all the way through.
“Anybody can slot in and slot out, but the class will always stay there. It’s just the simple things, the handling errors and the discipline, that we need to work on, and we can be more dangerous than what we’ve shown.”
Zebo has also struck up a good understanding with new Racing out-half Finn Russell, something of a kindred spirit in being creative and daring in possession.
That link has resulted in a number of big linebreaks and tries for Racing in the Top 14 and is likely to continue to grow as Racing progress this season.
“We’re very similar players and very similar people off the pitch as well,” said Zebo. “He likes to play what he sees, play with flair, he’s not afraid of making mistakes and we bounce off each other quite well.
“I think we just understood each other from the get-go and it’s exciting when we line-up together.”
The perception around French rugby is that there is sometimes a relaxed approach towards nutrition and conditioning, and although Racing are a highly professional outfit, Zebo admits the local cuisine is hard to resist.
The 28-year-old doesn’t appear to have lost any of his pace and will work hard to maintain his fitness, but he stresses that he simply feels happy in all aspects of life in Paris.
“Food has never been my strong point in terms of discipline but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” said the Cork Con man. “I am the way I am, and I’m not going to change.
“I’m feeling good, I’m feeling fresh, my mind is fresh more so than anything, which means I have a little bit of extra drive.
“When you’re in the same place for so long, playing the same thing over and over again, it’s just natural that the ambition wouldn’t always be as strong as it is coming into a new environment, a new team and trying to impress new people.
“So I’m excited. I’m very happy to be playing here. I’m week-in, week-out trying to impress and show my skillset, and just playing with a smile on my face and that’s the main thing.”
The meeting with Ulster felt like “a grudge match, a derby match” for Zebo, even though he wasn’t in Munster colours and he “would have hated to lose to them more so than losing to a French team.”
Those feelings probably serve to underline how much Zebo still wants to prove himself in an Ireland light.
Though his relocation to France means an Ireland call-up is unlikely and Zebo indicated that he hasn’t spoken to anyone in the international set-up for close to a year now, he is determined to make it difficult for Joe Schmidt to ignore him.
“Down the line, I would probably have to solidify my form, it would have to be a whole season long – I would have to score a try every single game, be man of the match,” said Zebo.
“That’s the way it is. I haven’t talked to… people back home in about a year now. If there is no communication coming one way I know the deal, so I’m not going to sit around crossing my fingers. I’m just going to keep enjoying my rugby here.
“Of course, it would be a dream to play for Ireland again. It’s very much a candle still burning in my mind. I’ve always loved wearing the green jersey, and until I hang up my boots I’ll always still have the desire to play for my country.”
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