In another sport, Simon Zebo’s second coming would be a very simple story. Home is the hero, Munster’s all-time top try-scorer is back at Thomond Park and ready to cement his legacy. Ireland’s forgotten man, primed to make a mark.
e’s been to the bright lights of Paris and soaked it all in. Played with the best, scored two tries in a Heineken Champions Cup final and suffered highs and lows along the way.
He’s spoken up against racism repeatedly and he’s not afraid to show his personality. He plays with freedom, breaks from the suffocating structure, refuses to bow to those who tell him not to celebrate his tries.
Zebo has always been different and Irish rugby has always struggled to fit him in. Rather than fete the returning hero, Zebo is being told that he must knuckle down and win his place in the team.
Johann van Graan once left him on the bench for a European semi-final against Racing 92 in favour of 22-year-old Alex Wootton and, while he is quick to praise the back-three star, he’s never seemed entirely convinced that he fits into his plans.
When Zebo became available last year, Munster needed the IRFU’s prod to make a move.
The union are paying a significant chunk of a contract that is not in the same league as what Zebo earned at Racing 92. The deal is heavily weighted in terms of incentives, with the clear message that the 31-year-old must earn his corn.
It’s not unusual for players over 30 to be put on those sort of deals, but, with Zebo, it almost sums up the distrust in which he is held.
Last week, Andy Farrell gathered 50 players together for a one-day camp ahead of the international season and didn’t invite Zebo. No doubt there was a phonecall or a message to explain the snub, but the public inference is that he must first play for Munster and play well. There’s no strolling into the Irish set-up.
Zebo’s mission begins against the Sharks at Thomond Park tonight. The word from the camp is that he’s trained well and his condition, which wasn’t always at the optimum during his three years in the French capital, is good. His effervescent personality is a tonic for the Munster squad, who missed him off the pitch.
On it, he still has plenty to offer if he can stay fit and click with those around him.
There are some who will never be convinced by Zebo’s merits as a rugby player, a contingent who recall the fuss that was made about his back-heel flick in Cardiff in 2013 and wave away his many other talents.
The detractors can point to Joe Schmidt’s reluctance to pick Zebo for large tranches of his time in charge.
If Zebo was so good, they argue, then the world’s best coach would have had him in his team.
It is clear, however, that the easy-going winger and the authoritarian Kiwi deputy principal were not a match made in heaven.
Zebo always wanted to play in France, but it’s not a stretch to suggest that the stifling atmosphere in Schmidt’s Irish camps played a role in him accepting Racing 92’s offer and leaving the 2019 World Cup behind.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that in his final season for Ireland, he started the win over the All Blacks in Soldier Field. It was Zebo’s clever kick down the line that led to the scrum from which Robbie Henshaw scored the winning try.
He started the rematch against the All Blacks and every game of the next year’s Six Nations, but once he confirmed his move, he was bombed out in a way that was not consistent with other players.
Both Munster and Ireland missed Zebo when he was gone. Although the system in this country is good at churning out players, there is a sameness to the prototypes and a similarity in the style of play.
Increasingly, rugby needs individuals who can break the system and change a game. Recall that Zebo was not picked for Schmidt’s first season in charge and received his first cap on the 2014 tour in Argentina.
The word was that the winger had to get serious, but he came out on the pitch waving to the crowd and smiling. He caught his first ball and instantly flicked it out the back in a show of strength that said ‘take me or leave me’.
Schmidt tried to leave him, sticking with Rob Kearney at full-back and preferring the more solid Felix Jones as his backline reserve for much of his early tenure.
Zebo spent much of the 2015 World Cup as a spectator and wasn’t involved in the quarter-final against Argentina, but by 2016 he was back in and playing some of his best rugby.
Beneath the smile is an uncompromising desire from Zebo to stay true to himself. Coaches try and bend him to their will, but he refuses to be part of the system.
If Munster and Ireland can tap into that streak, then they have a real asset on their hands. If they try and make a 31-year-old father part of the machine, then this won’t work out.
At Racing, he fitted right in with a maverick group of backs who played their home games in a concert venue.
It wasn’t always plain sailing and he found himself out of form. In his first season, he scored 16 tries but only managed three the next, curtailed campaign. Two of those came in the European Cup final. Last season, he crossed six times but increasingly found himself out of the side as the season came to a disappointing end.
So, he’s back home and hungry to build on his first stint in the red jersey, in which he became comfortably the province’s top try scorer by crossing the line 60 times.
He has a strong bond with Conor Murray and he’ll relish the chance to dovetail with Joey Carbery.
Munster are well stocked for back three players, which is perhaps why Van Graan was more focused on putting his resources into other positions when the opportunity to sign Zebo came around. The IRFU were willing to pony up, so now he has some selection problems on his hands.
Tonight, he starts on the left-wing but his best position is at full-back where he faces competition from Mike Haley, who has worn that shirt since Zebo left.
Haley had a good campaign last season and is a strong broken field runner, but if the two players are at their best then there’s no argument who should start.
Andrew Conway, Keith Earls and Shane Daly were top of the wing pecking order last season, while Calvin Nash is another option and Matt Gallagher is fit again after an injury-hit first season following his move from Saracens. If Zebo is fit and firing, he’s worthy of a starting spot.
When fit, he’s the best No 15 in the squad. He offers a passing game to complement Carbery’s playmaking, his broken field running is excellent and his offloading opens teams up. His defence is under-rated and his high ball work is excellent.
Add in his nose for the try-line and it’s a winning combination.
If he can establish himself at Munster, then it’s about catching Farrell and Mike Catt’s eye.
The Ireland coaches have strong options in the back three and Hugo Keenan has made the No 15 shirt his own with a string of consistent performances.
Keenan is excellent, with the aerial solidity of Kearney and an underrated running game.
At times, his distribution has let him down and, while he has time and talent enough to fix it, Zebo has plenty to offer a team whose stated ambition is to play heads-up rugby.
Before settling on Keenan, Farrell tried Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour at No 15. Leinster are convinced it’s Carbery’s best position. Daly has played for Ireland on the wing, Will Addison is back on the scene after a succession of injury woes.
On the wing, he’s got his Munster colleagues, Stockdale, Larmour, James Lowe, Robert Balacoune and others for company. It’s a crowded field and even at this stage of his career, Zebo is being asked to prove himself.
Tonight, the hero is home. There is a fairy-tale ending to be written if Zebo play his way into the 2023 World Cup squad.
To get to France, however, he has to prove himself all over again.
Farrell’s five options for the Ireland No 15 shirt
Hugo Keenan (Leinster, Age 25, Caps 13, Tries 5)
Leinster’s Keenan has made the No 15 shirt his own in the last year. Brilliantly consistent under the high ball, he is also a natural leader and always a threat with ball in hand. The next obvious stage of his development is to improve his distribution.
The try machine
Jacob Stockdale (Ulster, 25, 35, 19)
After 27 caps on the wing, Andy Farrell redeployed Stockdale to the No 15 shirt for five games last autumn and he’s played there regularly for Ulster. The position allows his devastating counter-attacking and power to thrive, but his lapses in concentration and aerial struggles are more exposed.
The great hope
Jordan Larmour (Leinster, 24, 30, 7)
Started at full-back and did well at the World Cup and when Farrell took over it was Larmour who succeeded Rob Kearney initially. Struggles under the high ball cost him that shirt and Keenan’s emergence has forced him on to the wing. Still has a lot to offer if he can finally nail the aerial stuff.
The returning exile
Simon Zebo (Munster, 31, 35, 9)
Where does Zebo fit in to Farrell’s plans. Certainly, the coach’s wish to play ‘heads-up’ rugby will suit the Corkman, who has thrived in the less structured environment of the Top 14, while he should fit in with the more relaxed environment the Englishman has built. Must hit form with Munster.
Joey Carbery (Munster, 25, 24, 1)
If both Carbery and Johnny Sexton make it to November, there’s a case for redeploying the younger man to the No 15 shirt. At Leinster, they’re still convinced he’s better used as a full-back and the position would remove him from the shipping lanes. Has the skills and vision to thrive there.