Simon Zebo magic offers warning to England of the dangers against Ireland in the Six Nations
Wales 22 Ireland 30
Sunday 03 February 2013
England be warned. The national team has been left bamboozled by a party trick from a green-shirted No 11 on Irish soil before.
True, on that occasion it was the English football XI and it was on Northern Irish soil – at Windsor Park in Belfast in 1971. But then, the party piece Simon Zebo produced in the 24th minute of Saturday's Six Nations opener in Cardiff was reminiscent of the manner in which George Best flicked the ball out of the hands of Gordon Banks, England's World Cup- winning goalkeeper and headed it into an empty net.
For his flash of inspirational genius, Best was at the time penalised for "ungentlemanly conduct" and the goal disallowed. Not so with Zebo, on the occasion of his Six Nations debut.
The Munster wing, 22, managed to stay on the right side of the rugby laws as he flicked the outside of his left boot to take control of a loose pass from Jamie Heaslip in the lead-up to Ireland's second try in the 30-22 win, touched down by Cian Healy.
With his socks rolled down to his ankles, Zebo has a throwback look about him – like one of those twinkle-toed football wingers of the 1970s (Dave Thomas formerly of Burnley, Queen's Park Rangers and England springs to mind).
In the oval-balled game, the less nippy England No 8 Dean Richards was fond of giving air to his shins. It was the Leicester totem who labelled Geordan Murphy "the George Best of rugby" – a badge of honour that has now surely passed on to the latest Irish back-three sensation.
"You don't really think too much about these things," Zebo said, reflecting on his magic moment in the aftermath of a flying Irish start to the Six Nations campaign. The 30-22 win was also inspired by the returning Brian O'Driscoll and sets up an intriguing head to head with England in Dublin next Sunday.
"Jamie threw a pass a little behind me so I said I'd give it a go and thankfully it paid off," added Zebo. "That's just my personality, I'm not afraid to have a go. The coaching staff and everyone else back the players, so nobody feels pressure to shut up shop. Everyone is encouraged to express themselves."
The Irish players have taken to calling Zebo "Django" and it was a piece of O'Driscoll brilliance that unchained him for Ireland's opening score, the veteran centre tying in three defenders before slipping him a scoring pass. O'Driscoll himself also got on the try-scorers' sheet as Ireland raced into a 30-3 lead inside 43 minutes, before sitting back and absorbing enough of the Welsh backlash to emerge with an eight-point margin still intact.
O'Driscoll was back to his razor- sharp best while hooker Rory Best and Sean O'Brien, the tackling machine at flanker, also produced performances of Lions class in front of the watching Warren Gatland. So, for that matter, did Zebo.
He might be on the light side for a latter-day winger – just 14st 10lb – but he is not shy of putting his body on the line, as he showed several times when Wales strove to build up a head of steam shortly before the interval.
First capped against New Zealand in the summer, Zebo is an intriguing character. His father, Arthur, hails from the Caribbean island of Martinique and moved to France to complete his military service.
He became one of France's leading 800m runners and, had it not been for a broken leg, he would have run in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal where, as the late television commentator Ron Pickering famously put it, the giant Cuban Alberto Juantorena "opened his legs and showed his class" to win the two-lap title, as well as the 400m.
Arthur Zebo married a Cork woman, Lydia, and it was in the southern Irish city that their son was born.
Simon ran the 100m in 11.1sec at school and his sister, Jessika, has also inherited the family speed genes. A 400m runner, she has represented Ireland at the European Indoor Championships. Her brother was almost lost to the Ireland rugby union team before his international career had even began. A fluent French speaker, in his late teens he toyed with the idea of making his way in the game in France instead. "I have family over there in Paris and in Toulouse," the new George Best of rugby said.
Wales – Tries Cuthbert, Halfpenny, Mitchell. Conversions Halfpenny 2. Penalty Halfpenny.
Ireland – Tries Zebo, Healy, O'Driscoll. Conversions Sexton 3. Penalty Sexton.
Wales: L Halfpenny (Blues); A Cuthbert (Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Blues), G North (Scarlets); D Biggar (Ospreys), M Phillips (Bayonne); G Jenkins (Toulon), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), A Coombs (Dragons), I Evans (Ospreys), A Shingler (Scarlets), S Warburton (Blues, capt), T Faletau (Dragons).
Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets) for Rees, 14-21, 52; P James (Bath) for Jenkins, 39-67; J Tipuric (Ospreys) for Shingler, 43; L Williams (Blues) for Phillips, 64; C Mitchell (Exeter) for Jones, 74; O Kohn (Harlequins) for Evans, 74; J Hook (Perpignan) for Biggar, 74.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); C Gilroy (Ulster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), S Zebo (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), M McCarthy (Connacht), D Ryan (Munster), P O'Mahony (Munster), S O'Brien (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster, capt).
Replacements: K Earls (Munster) for D'Arcy, 45; C Henry (Ulster) for O'Mahony, 52; D O'Callaghan (Munster) for McCarthy, 62; D Kilcoyne (Munster) for Healy, 74; E Reddan (Leinster) for Zebo, 79.
Referee: R Poite (France).
Numbers game: Worries for Wales
Wales have never finished above fourth after losing their first game
France were the last side to lose their first Six Nations fixture after winning the Grand Slam (in 2002)
Wales have won just five of their 13 opening Six Nations matches
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