Soon after yesterday’s home win over England, Simon Zebo’s mind had already turned to the Millennium Stadium and Ireland’s date with Wales on Saturday, March 14.
The 19-9 victory over England will see Ireland head to Cardiff in two weeks’ time as the only team with a 100% record in the 2015 RBS 6 Nations, armed with a two-point lead at the top of the table.
However, hosts Wales are still very much in Championship contention following their 20-13 win over France in Paris. The result of the March 14 game could have a big bearing on the destination of the title this year.
Simon Zebo admitted: “It’s a huge test, Wales on their day can beat anyone. They are an unbelievably dangerous side, and that will be the massive focus for us now. It’s the biggest game of our season and we’ve got to do everything we can to prepare as best we can.”
It is no wonder Zebo is looking forward to returning to the Millennium Stadium. It is where he ran in his first RBS 6 Nations try two years ago and produced that memorable back-heel ‘flick’.
Having missed last year’s title success, the Corkman has made the most of his opportunities since the summer tour to Argentina, diligently working away in training and improving his all-round game. His consistent performances and high work-rate in the green jersey have earned the reward of eight starts in a row under Joe Schmidt.
Undoubtedly he would love to add to his five Ireland tries in the coming weeks, but Zebo’s value to Ireland is more than just his ability as an attacker and finisher.
He drew widespread plaudits for his multifaceted display against England yesterday where he was hugely impressive under the high ball, outplayed his rival Anthony Watson and produced a key turnover tackle on the English winger in the lead up to Robbie Henshaw’s try.
Asked about Zebo’s performance afterwards, Schmidt said: “He’s a free-spirited young man who loves the game and he loves to be involved in the game. It’s a case of convincing all the players to keep that appetite to be involved as often as possible even if it’s not with the ball in your hand. I thought his kick-off take from the 22 drop-out was an exceptional take in the air.
“I thought the way he finished the game against France, taking Remi Lamerat, a very strong player, into touch…those are things that don’t (involve) him carrying the ball.
“We were reasonably keen to get some ball to him today. Sometimes these things work out and sometimes they don’t but I felt the game today was high tempo, very high-paced and there were two very positive teams going at it.”
The 24-year-old himself explained: “It felt like one of the quickest games I’ve played in. I don’t know why, it must have been the backfield cover so that’s a testament to George Ford. He had us on our toes and we were constantly trying to cut off space.
“If felt like a tough, quick game and in the last 10 minutes they were really putting us under the pump. One or two little decisions could have sent the match either way.”
Speaking about his run of Test appearances since last June, he added: “You just take every game as it comes. You just think about going out and doing your best in training and doing your best on the pitch to try and help the team.
“It’s probably my first season as a professional rugby player being able to be injury-free. Fingers crossed that keeps the same way for another little bit. That’s all I can do, stay injury-free and put my hand up for selection.”
Zebo praised Henshaw for his ‘unbelievable’ score which proved to be the match winner in the end, while he also hailed the half-back pairing of Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray who have managed matches superbly under Schmidt. Even the loss of Sean O’Brien (concussion) and Sexton (hamstring) was dealt with by the strength in depth the coaches have cultivated in the Irish set-up.
“(Sexton and Murray) are quality players, they have proven they are world class. From the outside it’s just really easy, I suppose. You know what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it. And Joe has a great game-plan and those two boys are more than capable of executing it.
“(The impact of the replacements) shows the squad depth and how strong it is with competition for places out there, it’s massive. There’s full faith in the 23, not just the 15, there’s 23 and more players on the outside who could easily come in and fill in, so that’s testament to the strength in depth of the squad and to the players who came on.”
Ireland’s latest win – their first against England in four years – will increase talk of a potential Grand Slam leading up to the penultimate round of the Championship. There is no fear of Schmidt’s men getting too far ahead of themselves, though.
Zebo insisted: “We can’t think like that, we’ve just got to focus on Wales. If you look too far ahead of yourself you’ll slip up. So we’re just focused on preparation now, trying to recover and regroup, and put our best foot forward for Wales. I don’t think so to be honest, no, it doesn’t ever feel like that (that it’s hard to keep Grand Slam thoughts to one side).
“Each day there’s something new in training, we’re kinda in a bubble and we don’t really get wind of these exterior things that would be whispered about. We’re just constantly trying to improve and constantly training, with meetings and everything we don’t get a chance to think about these kind of things, so we’ll just be focused on Wales.”