Winger Simon Zebo says that Ireland have ‘really high expectations and standards that we want to achieve in this tournament’, but there is no danger of them taking their eye off the ball in Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations opener against Italy.
Simon Zebo will combine with Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe in the back-three in Rome, the same trio who featured in the November wins over South Africa and Australia.
Zebo has started Ireland’s last five Tests, scoring three tries in the process, and is looking forward to his Six Nations return – he has not made a Championship appearance since sustaining a foot injury against England two years ago.
The Munster flyer is hoping the defending champions can get off to a strong start, stating: “We are going to be focusing fully on Italy and everything after that will look after itself. You just take it each game at a time. You try and play well for your club or province and let the international scene take care of itself.
“I’m grateful I’ve been given an opportunity, another one, to play and the Six Nations is a massive tournament. We’ve really high expectations and standards we want to achieve in this tournament. To be given the jersey early on, I am very happy with it.”
The 24-year-old was a spectator during last season’s title-winning campaign as he returned from injury prior to the Championship. Ireland were 46-7 winners in last year’s encounter but games against the Azzurri in their back yard have been much tighter affairs – Italy were 22-15 victors in 2013 and two years previously, a Ronan O’Gara drop goal sealed a narrow 13-11 victory for Ireland.
Reflecting on missing out on the 2014 Six Nations, Zebo admitted: “I’d liked to have thought if I had a full start to the season, I would have been in with a shot. I would have liked to have seen where it went from there but my game has come on.
“Working with Joe (Schmidt) and Axel (Anthony Foley) down in Munster has helped. I’m 24 and I’m always going to keep improving for the next couple of years anyway, fingers crossed.
“All the little small aspects of my game have picked up. Just the finer details, finding out a few details and fingers crossed I will just keep getting better. Joe is a very detailed man. He knows every small aspect of the game. It is incredible, really, and he’s great to work with.”
Schmidt has named Ian Keatley at out-half for his Six Nations debut, while Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw combine in the centre for only the second time at international level and for the first time in the Championship.
Zebo is excited about playing with Payne and Henshaw again, and he was delighted for his Munster colleague Keatley who has waited patiently in the wings for his Six Nations bow.
“We’ve been going well in training. The boys (Payne and Henshaw) are pretty confident in their partnership and just whichever way the game pans out. If I get a load of ball, or I get none at all…anything I can do to help the team is very important, (but) it would be nice to get a few touches.
“It’s been a long road for him (Keatley). He’s over the moon to be playing. It’s a big opportunity for him. As a half-back partnership, Ian and Conor (Murray) can provide a lot.
“They are well used to playing together at Munster. They know each other inside out. It will be easier for Ian to adjust but he’s a top quality player and Conor is one of the best in the world, so there will be no fears about not performing this weekend.”
The attention to detail from Schmidt has been much talked about by all the players since he started as Ireland head coach From players being able to analyse the game in real time on tablets on the replacements bench to the high intensity at training, the New Zealander has given a new lease of life to the squad. And coming into camp this week, Zebo offered a little insight into what preparation for the Italy game entailed.
“We do quite a good bit of video and analysing where their main threats were coming from, where we want to attack them (and) where we want to attack them. I suppose we would spend an hour, hour and ten minutes on the pitch defending their threats and trying to expose them as well.
“Lots of video, lots of video and we always try and work on, if we know we are going to be in for an aerial battle – the back-three will go out and do some extras, high balls and things like that. Everything would be very detailed and once you know the detail and once you know your roles you can just go out and do it. It’s made a bit easier.”
That emphasis on the collective, players working for one another and knowing their individual roles in the team has been key to Ireland’s success over the past year. Schmidt, in naming his team this week, said that when Ian Madigan was told he was not selected at out-half, he responded by asking whether he was covering centre and out-half and if there was anywhere else he needed him to cover.
Mindful of the hard work that goes into tries that the likes of Zebo and Bowe scored during the recent GUINNESS Series, the Corkman added: “I just go out and play every game as best I can and do whatever I can for the team. Whether that is a last-ditch tackle or a line break, it doesn’t matter.
“Each player just wants to benefit the team and that is the great thing about the side. Everybody is really playing for each other. There is a sense of everybody playing for each other.
“It’s great, so if one person gets a little bit of limelight we know someone else did the dirty job to make sure he did (get the limelight). It’s great. Everybody is motoring well. Everyone is really excited so, collectively, hopefully we will put in a big performance (against Italy).”