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Dublin: 8°C Saturday 8 May 2021

Zebo's wondrous flicker of skill feels inimitable eight years on

At 22, the Corkman looked set to grace international fields for a decade, but almost four years have passed since his last cap.

Source: William Stride/YouTube

THERE WERE SOME less generous takes.

Stuff like: if you think a ‘soccer-style’ flick is incredible, you should watch a bit of, y’know, soccer. That would really blow your socks off.

A little pushback was inevitable given the fevered giddiness that grew around Simon Zebo’s inspired, reflexive flash of skill eight years ago today.

It’s a moment that still casts resides in easily-accessible memory. Each descriptor applied to Zebo in print, every commentary aside about his playing style is still tangled up in a split-second contortion in the lead-up to Cian Healy’s try against Wales in 2013.

First impressions count. And Zebo was a mere 23 minutes into his Six Nations debut with a try already under his belt when a poor pass to the right unwittingly gave the 22-year-old Corkman a chance to emboss his name on international rugby.

It felt like the stage would be Zebo’s for a decade or more from that point on. With England taking on Ireland in round two, The Telegraph sent a reporter to Blackrock to dig up the humble beginnings of “Zebomania”. A respectful refusal to participate in the frenzy from Zebo’s mother was included alongside hushed talk of his prowess in two codes of football, athletics and, when the trail moved to Cork Con and rugby, John O’Mahony somewhat belatedly brought up the fact that his son was in fact a team-mate of sport’s new superstar.

Virality is not the most reliable measure of an instant’s impact on public consciousness, but when Jamie Heaslip clunked a pass a little low, a little too far back, Zebo instinctively caught the imagination of the rugby world and beyond.

When the dust settled on his debut, the flick and what turned out to be a gritty Ireland win, Zebo himself veered more towards playing down the moment. ‘One of those things,’ he’d say with a smile hovering somewhere between embarrassment and coy pride. His first Six Nations was ended by injury 11 minutes into the loss to England, but as a late call-up to the Lions tour that summer, he told the media scramble in Sydney that he practised his football skills every day in training and predicted he would repeat the trick some day.

simon-zebo-runs-in-for-a-try Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Yet it was the flick’s inimitable quality that made jaws drop. Even if such a skill can be spotted every weekend on a football field, it’s not readily repeatable in rugby, certainly not on such a stage as a Six Nations curtain-raiser. Perhaps even the more experienced Zebo would be less inclined to do something so unorthodox if the same ball were to drop behind him this year. 99% of passes like Heaslip’s that day result in a knock on, lost possession or, at best, slow ball after a player does the ‘smart play’ by diving on the loose ball.

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Smart, just not inspired.

The exotic in rugby has became all the more familiar, the soon-to-be Ulster star Leone Nakarawa passes from all angles (in at least one instance there was even a side-footed pass, square across an opposition 22), Super Rugby and Mitre 10 Cup footage is easily accessible and this generation’s Carlos Spencer is a pasty Scot. Yet that early addition to Zebo’s highlight reel still stands apart.

There have been thrilling moments and memories in Irish rugby in the eight years since:  a long-range Jonathan Sexton drop-goal, Rob Kearney’s resurgence in Chicago, Jordan Larmour’s sidesteps, Ian Madigan’s tears and a handful of Jacob Stockdale chip-and-regathers.

Zebo’s flick, though not without its share of perspiration through repetition, had a higher dose of inspiration than anything that came since. Nothing quite struck the chord of the wider imagination quite like the Corkman did.

That willingness to improvise inevitably brought Zebo to grate against Joe Schmidt. Ireland’s most successful head coach was certainly not the most flexible – we can only imagine how he would have balked at trying to plan through this past unplannable year. 29 of Zebo’s 35 Test caps were under Schmidt’s watch, but there was always an unmistakable sense that their differing styles could only grate.

The IRFU’S unwritten rule-that’s-not-a-rule about selection of overseas-based players has its merits and sensible sports science behind it. Yet there was no allowance on show even for a transition period never mind a work-around when it came to Zebo. As soon as he had agreed a move to France, he was already in exile despite still playing for Munster.

Now in exile proper, Zebo’s frustration has at times burned through with what some people misread – often willfully – as Schadenfreude. He is 30 now, a long way removed from the young tyro his parents were keen to protect from the limelight. Although he has fierce competition for places in the Racing 92 back three he remains a thrilling sight to behold when on form, a gamechanger of the highest quality.

It’s just a great shame that, eight years on from the flick he lodged in the archives on his first Six Nations appearance, we are also approaching four years since his last outing in an Ireland shirt.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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