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'He really turned up on the big days' - What Simon Zebo learned at Racing

Racing attack coach Mike Prendergast says Zebo brings a lot more to the table than just X-factor moments.

Simon Zebo takes to the field at Racing's La Defense Arena.
Simon Zebo takes to the field at Racing's La Defense Arena.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IT TOOK SIMON Zebo just five minutes and 35 seconds to get the Thomond Park crowd off their seats on his second Munster debut.

Latching onto a loose ball against the Sharks, the 31-year-old turned on the burners, burst down the left wing and dived over the line, before turning to face the stand and flashing the familiar ‘Z’ symbol to an adoring home crowd. 

In that a moment, it felt as if he had never left.

But of course, he had, the homegrown hero upping sticks backs in 2018 for a new challenge in the plush surroundings of Parisian giants Racing 92.

Across three seasons in France, Zebo scored 25 tries across 64 appearances in the famous blue and white jersey, all the while making the necessary adjustments to get the best out of himself in a different system, a different league and a very different environment.

Naturally, there has been much excitement surrounding his return home, with his new Munster coaches and teammates full of praise for Zebo’s famed positivity and general upbeat demeanour. 

simon-zebo-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try Zebo celebrates his first try against the Sharks. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But what type of player are Munster getting this time around, and how have those three seasons in France changed the man who was already established at the province’s top try-scorer of all time when he left Thomond Park back in 2018?

“Over here (at Racing) he probably picked up a different way of looking at things,” explains Mike Prendergast, who worked with Zebo as Racing’s backs and attack coach over his last two seasons in Paris.

He’s picked up some invaluable experience playing in France for three years, especially at a club like Racing who would be a very attack focused club, so there’s nuggets and areas there that he’ll bring back with him to Munster and add value through.” 

Zebo quickly made a strong impression in France, scoring 16 tries in his first season. That number dipped to just three tries the following year and six in his final campaign as others took on the try-scoring responsibility, but he remained a hugely valuable member of the squad, playing the vast majority of his rugby at fullback and contributing to the team in different ways.

Think of Simon Zebo, and you probably think of those eye-catching X-factor moments that gets the crowd on their feet, but he also grew into a more well-rounded player over the course of his time in France.

“He’s very good at adapting, but he’s also very good at feeding off players,” Prendergast continues.

donnacha-ryan-with-mike-prendergast-and-simon-zebo-after-the-game Mike Prendergast pictured with Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo in 2019. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Over here he would have fed off Finn Russell obviously, they had a very good relationship, and the likes of Virimi Vakatawa too. Just running off them, he had the ability to do that quite easily. 

“When himself and Finn or Virimi were playing together, they understood each other really well, and I know this sounds very simple, but they got each other. Little changes of direction at the last moment, stepping off a left or right foot because they knew teams would drift in or whatever.

“And because Zeebs reads the game so well, he can adapt to different styles without taking from his basics, which are very strong. Like his kicking game is very, very good and he’s also very good in the air, then obviously he adds that extra bit of flair and that game appreciation, he’s a smart rugby player.

But he reads the game very, very well. For me, that’s probably the biggest thing he has. Anyone that scores that amount of tries has got to be doing something right. You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time, and that’s not just about snuffing out tries and being an absolute finisher. Of course he’s got all that down, but he’s just got a very good feeling for and reading of the game.”

A huge presence around a squad, Zebo also impressed the Racing coaches with his input off the field.

“He was a pleasure to coach and a pleasure to deal with,” Prendergast adds. “He’s very informative. He’s got good opinions around the game and you kind of get that out of him more when you’re chatting to him one-on-one, he’s that kind of personality. 

“He always has a smile on his face, and I know people throw that out there about him but it is infectious. He’ll always look at the positive side of things and whether it’s sitting down with a group or one-on-one, his rugby mind is very good.

“For instance, he used to bring a lot of rugby smarts to how we cover our backfield, which is stuff that might not have been as strong here, but he brought that and it’s something that I know Racing took on board in terms of their backfield cover.  

“He’s been in very good environments and been under very good coaches with Munster and with Joe Schmidt at Ireland, so he’s experienced a lot and he’s a smart guy. He takes all that on board and the areas and parts of the game that are important for him as a player, he really holds those close and focuses on them.

He runs great lines, he runs a lovely little overs line that when you watch him closely and see him doing it, it’s a real skill that he has to just change direction in the last moment. That’s why he finds little holes and spaces and scores tries. 

“He’s very good at analysing how defenders defend individually, and he can often outsmart them with just little changes of direction.”

Older, wiser, and willing to pass on the knowledge he’s accumulated, Prendergast is certain Munster’s wider squad will also benefit from having Zebo back in Limerick, having watched how he interacted with Racing’s younger players. 

“He’s a very open guy, very placid, and he builds up relationships very quickly, and if you build up relationships then you can pass on information a lot easier.

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“He’s not going to be one of these guys who is going to be consistently hammering home the point he wants to get across, it’s more so in a subtle way. With young players, he’ll pull them aside and give them little one-liners.

dave-kilcoyne-with-simon-zebo Zebo during a Munster training session last week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“He’s bringing all that back now and he’ll be a massive addition for Munster both on and off the pitch with what he’s experienced over here.”

The ideal scenario for Munster is that Zebo helps end the long wait for silverware at Thomond Park, and the fact that his contract is part-funded by the IRFU highlights that this is being viewed as more than just a fairytale return.   

Having come up on short when it matters most so often in recent seasons, Munster now have another big-game player they can turn to.

“Zeebs is a big-time a competitor, absolutely. The proof is there when you look back at the big games (with Racing) over the years, he was always to the forefront in either scoring or setting up tries. 

He really turned up on the big days. That’s not to say he didn’t turn up other days – he nearly always did – but his class really shone through on the big days. That for me is the sign of a good player.

“You look at our run in the Champions Cup (2019/20) when we got to the final, he was scoring tries, scored in the final, scored in the quarter-final against Clermont. On those big days he was always there with his two hands up.

“Everything is an experience, and it’s just about picking the right aspects and the right areas for your teams which counts, and Simon will have that ability where he’ll know what parts of that skill-set that he learned over here will suit Munster, and what things might not.

“Already you can see the crowds getting excited when he gets the ball, and he has a lot more to bring to the table too, because it’s still early days. He’s bringing a lot home that he learned over here.” 

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey chat all things Connacht, Munster, Leinster and Ulster — and welcome back the AIL — on The42 Rugby Weekly


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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