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'The break made me appreciate what we have, really re-focus and re-motivate'

Simon Zebo made his return from injury last weekend as Racing secured a Champions Cup semi-final.

WHILE SOME CLUBS talk about adding their fourth or fifth European star, Racing 92 have become fixated on la première étoile.

The Top 14 side have been chasing a Champions Cup trophy with real hunger in recent years, increasingly eager to add their name to the list of winners in Europe after coming up short in finals in 2016 and 2018.

Having spent eight years doing the same with Munster, Simon Zebo is one of the cast of stars at Racing who are aiming to get the Parisian club over the line in the next month, with a semi-final to come on Saturday at home against defending champs Saracens.

simon-zebo Simon Zebo on his return to Thomond Park last year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s all you hear really, that first star over the crest,” explains the Cork man. “It’s really important to the president and there’s a huge desire among the players for it.

“In the past, some French teams might not always have had that. The Top 14 would have outweighed the Champions Cup in some clubs but it’s almost the reverse here.

“Coming so close with two finals, knowing the history of European rugby, the club is hugely focused on it. It’s the same as it was in Munster.”

30-year-old Zebo returned from injury in last weekend’s quarter-final win away to Clermont, starting at fullback in what was his first appearance since January. 

Having joined from Munster in 2018, Zebo’s first season with Racing was a real success as he scored 16 tries in 23 starts for the club, but the 2019/20 campaign was a tough one due to a series of unlucky injuries.

“It’s been a feckin’ nightmare,” says Zebo, “really frustrating.”

He had a concussion early in the campaign, suffered a foot injury, got back but then briefly fell ill. There were appearances in between but he couldn’t get any momentum and then in early January, just five minutes into a Top 14 clash with Clermont – and after beating four defenders for a 40-metre linebreak – Zebo broke his foot as he was tackled. 

It meant more rehab and just as he was getting close to a return, Covid-19 hit, and Zebo went into lockdown like everyone else. He worked hard during those months to get into good shape but just six weeks after Racing had returned to training over the summer, he suffered another foot injury as he snapped a metatarsal.

But Zebo is now back in action and he came through his return at fullback against Clermont last weekend unscathed, providing the assisting pass for Louis Dupichot’s early try to settle himself back in.

simon-zebo-after-the-match-with-son-jacob Zebo with his son Jacob soon after his foot injury in January. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Racing attack coach Mike Prendergast says Zebo is “very, very fit” and the 35-times capped Ireland international is feeling good. He explains that he put time into taking care of his body during the lockdown and even though he had another injury setback in the summer, he’s feeling in peak condition.

Being more cautious with his comeback from the latest foot injury – he had troubles in this area previously with Munster – was important.

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“There have been times where I’ve been susceptible to a few knocks, so it’s making sure I’m feeling strong, feeling light, feeling fast. Just having that extra time to focus a little more on it has been to my benefit.

“I’m moving really well in training and feeling good, so the only thing I was slightly worried about was contact because I hadn’t done any since I broke my foot eight months ago, so it was a nervous one last weekend but it went well.”

While sticking diligently to his training, Zebo found the lockdown a blessing in disguise as he returned to rugby feeling revived.

“I took the time to switch off and completely freshen up,” he explains. “That’s probably another thing, the mental side of it. Every now and then at some points in your rugby career, you can go through… not a lull, but sometimes it can get monotonous or a bit repetitive.

“Having the break made me appreciate more what we have, really re-focus and re-motivate. I’m excited now and hungry to be on the pitch.” 

Zebo loves life with Racing. He thrills in playing alongside kindred creative spirit Finn Russell, who he calls ‘White Chocolate,’ and flying wing Teddy Thomas, who is currently sidelined through injury, while he welcomed the addition of Kurtley Beale even if it means strong competition for the fullback slot. The Australian is currently suspended after a red card for a high tackle in his second Top 14 game.

Having Donnacha Ryan, or ‘Shkin’ as Zebo calls him, in Paris is another plus.

donnacha-ryan-and-simon-zebo Zebo loves playing with Donnacha Ryan for Racing. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Zebo is a big fan of the club’s indoor Paris La Défense Arena, while all is rosy off the pitch too. He and his fiancée, Elvira, now have three kids, with the two eldest having just started at an all-French school 50 metres down the road from the new house they all moved into post-lockdown.

Zebo’s contract with Racing is up next summer and already there has been speculation in the French media about his future, but he says he’s not getting worried about that yet.

“I haven’t thought about it too much,” says Zebo. “Coming off lockdown and into my injury, I’ve only played one game and I’ve just been focusing on getting healthy. It’s so, so early in the season and it’s funny to read things.

“It’s honestly so early that I haven’t given it a bit of thought. I’m very, very happy at Racing and obviously my family is all back home in Ireland, so there are certain things that will pull you left, right, and centre.

“At the moment, I’m very happy and I just want to focus on continuing a run of good health and finding that momentum that I’ve had with certain players on the pitch. The rest will take care of itself because it’s a long, long season and I’ve only played one game.

“It’s a very exciting time to be part of this group. Hopefully, we can add a few trophies and see what happens then.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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