When Simon Zebo finished his first eve-of-match training session of the Lions tour at the North Sydney Oval today, there was enough ice on his right thigh to have made the captain of the Titanic think twice about sailing full steam ahead. “I have a clean bill of health and I’m fine,” the Irish wing insisted. As the touring backs have been dropping like flies ever since they arrived in Australia, it was not the most convincing statement in rugby history.
But it could have been worse: the ice might have been packed around his left foot – the “sweetest of left foots”, as football jargon would have it.
Back in February, on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, the man from Cork produced a moment of such spellbinding skill, his career may for ever be defined by it. Hampered by a misdirected pass from his captain, Jamie Heaslip, that drifted to a barely accessible place behind his backside, Zebo flicked the ball up with the outside of his boot, bounced it off his forearm, clutched it in both hands as two Welshmen hurtled at him and set up the ruck from which the prop Cian Healy completed a famous score. It was one hell of a trick.
Zebo, who had already bagged one eye-catching try that afternoon, was instantly propelled into the sporting big time and to this day he is still being asked about that flash of inspiration. But he could pull an even better trick here in Australia.
Left out of the original Lions squad, much to his bitter disappointment, he could yet secure a role for himself in the first Test against the Wallabies next weekend. Everything depends on his performance against the New South Wales Waratahs.
“Of course it’s a realistic target,” he said, confident as you like. “Why not? It’s a game of rugby and I’ll go out there and do what I do, which is have some fun. Anyone on this tour who puts his best foot forward has a chance of a Test place. I see this match as an opportunity for all 23 players in the squad.”
Ostensibly, Zebo is here, drafted from Ireland’s tour of North America, because his countryman Tommy Bowe fractured a bone in his hand during the narrow victory over Queensland Reds in Brisbane a week ago.
“I was getting off the bus after our win over the USA in Houston when the coaching staff told me I’d be heading for Sydney,” he recalled. “Three flights and a couple of fuel stops later, I’m wearing the red shirt. I feel sorry for Tommy, of course, but I’m smiling.”
Yet the loss of Bowe, pretty much a certainty for the right wing spot against the Wallabies before his orthopaedic misfortune, is no longer the principal cause of panic for the Lions coaches. The most urgent issue is the fitness of George North, who was nailed on for the left wing berth until he twanged a hamstring during Tuesday’s knockabout game with the Combined Queensland/New South Wales Country XV in Newcastle.
If North’s chances of recovering in time for the opening Test have plummeted as far south as the back-room staff have been hinting over the last 24 hours, Zebo’s name will come into the equation. A half-decent showing against the Waratahs might even make him a narrow favourite to start the big game at the Suncorp Stadium seven days from now. And they say a week is a long time in politics.
After that flick, it was an odds-on bet that Zebo would travel to Australia as of right. But the flick was followed by a fall, and a heavy one at that. During Ireland’s second Six Nations game against England, played in difficult conditions in Dublin, he suffered a broken foot. By the time he returned to the Munster side, playing his part in a magnificent Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Harlequins at the Stoop, the Lions selectors were looking much more closely at Sean Maitland’s impressive, if significantly less extravagant, contribution to Scotland’s campaign. Once Maitland was pencilled in and Bowe recovered from long-term injury in time to make the cut, there was no room left at the inn.
Zebo, just turned 23, swallowed hard and put it down to experience. “Like all the others who didn’t receive the call, I was disappointed,” he admitted. “But there was Ireland to focus on, and anyway, there’s always a glimmer of hope with the Lions because people get knocked around on these big tours. The point is, I think I can make a mark now I’m here. I feel comfortable playing international rugby.
“People look back at that game against Wales and yes, it was my Six Nations debut. But it wasn’t my entrance into rugby at Test level. I’d played against the All Blacks in New Zealand, against the likes of Argentina and Fiji and the Springboks. It wasn’t like I was someone who’d been thrown in at the deep end in Cardiff.”
In a straight-line sprint – or, better still, a mazy sprint – the newcomer would probably see off his rival backs in this party. Speed runs in the family, so to speak. His father Arthur was born in Martinique and was a fine middle-distance athlete: indeed, he would have represented France in the 800 metres at the 1976 Montreal Olympics but for injury problems at the wrong moment. Zebo’s sister Jessika also won representative honours on the track.
As a schoolboy (he attended the Presentation Brothers College in Cork, like the record-breaking Irish outside-half Ronan O’Gara and a handful of other big-name Emerald Isle rugby figures), showed potential right across the sporting spectrum.
Zebo says he likes “cool rugby players” and grew up idolising some of the All Black sensations of recent memory – such glorious attacking talents as the full-back Christian Cullen, with whom he shares a certain something stylistically speaking, and Jonah Lomu, with whom he shares nothing at all, being approximately half his size. The “play it as you see it” philosophy appeals strongly to him.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the flick. Has he grown tired of talking about it, by any chance? “I just don’t see it as that much of a big deal,” he said with a disarming grin. “I do it every day in training; I’ve done it out there today. Seriously, it’s not something I’d be concentrating on. There are other aspects of my game that make me happier.”
All the same, it is difficult to imagine any of his rival wings – the heavily built North for instance – attempting something similar. Does he feel he could offer the Lions back division, physically substantial as it is, a point of difference with his unique brand of individualism?
“I’d have found that question easier to answer a few months ago, when I was playing against the Welsh boys,” he replied, diplomatically.
“They’re team-mates now, aren’t they? They’re very talented players and as I speak, I can’t find too many flaws in their games.”
It is the job of the Lions coaches to find some flaws in the Wallaby wings – Nick Cummins, the so-called “honey badger” who scored the only try of the game against England at Twickenham last November, and Israel Folau, the rugby league convert who has made such a blinding start to his union career, are currently expected to perform the wide roles – while somehow identifying their own best pairing through the fog of injury concern.
Zebo could be the man who comes to their rescue, and if he does it with another touch of off-the-wall genius, rugby folk will still be talking about it decades from now.