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Gerry Thornley: Simon Zebo was one of rugby’s great entertainers

The 34-year-old has announced that he will call time on his career at the end of the season

Confirmation that Simon Zebo is to retire at the end of this season comes as no surprise, yet it is still sad news. ‘Zeebs’ was a true one-off, a free spirited, game-breaking fullback/winger who could light up grounds with his skills and his smile. There will never be another quite like him.

In the absence of any news regarding his own future while his fellow 34-year-olds, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray, had signed on for another year with Munster, it was clear that this would be Zebo’s last season.

After his three-year Parisian sojourn with Racing 92, Zebo’s first season back with Munster (2021-22) went quite well, with nine tries in his dozen starts, but the niggling injuries became more persistent last season, restricting him to just four starts and six appearances in total.

Ironically, this season has been more productive, with nine starts, of which eight have been at fullback, the position he has always preferred and which made best use of his wide-ranging abilities. For as well as being a superb finisher, Zebo has always possessed an eye for space. He could sense where the ball would come or demand it. As well as pace, strength and footwork, he has a range of wicked, left-footed short kicks, and can pass and offload off both hands to create openings and tries for his team-mates.

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Zebo and his wife Elvira have four kids, Jacob (nine), Sofia (seven), Noah (four) and Isabella (two), and with a young family and a happy life, he’s long since content with his decision. His farewell statement was fittingly short, sweet and apt.

The son of his Cork mum, Lynda, and Martinique dad, Arthur, Zebo and his sister Jessika inherited much of the athleticism which made his father an exceptional 400 metre runner.

Attending Beaumont Boys School and PBC Cork, as well as playing for Blackrock GAA club and Avondale United, Zebo could probably have pursued a career in soccer, hurling or athletics judging by his under-age achievements. But it was clear from his standout qualities with PBC Cork (with whom he won the Schools Senior Cup in 2007), Cork Con (AIL titles in 2008 and 2010) and the Ireland Under-20s that above all he was born to play rugby.

He made his Munster debut in April 2010 as a 20-year-old against Connacht, his Champions Cup debut against the Scarlets in December 2011 and was given his Ireland debut by Declan Kidney in the first Test on the 2012 tour to New Zealand.

Ultimately, he went on to score seven tries in 35 caps for his country, winning the Six Nations in 2015 and also featuring in that year’s World Cup, as well as making three appearances for the British & Irish Lions on the tour to Australia in 2013.

Yet it is also so fitting that among the many highlight reels in a richly entertaining and often thrilling career, as famous as any will be that outrageous back-heeled flick against Wales in Cardiff in 2013 when Jamie Heaslip’s pass looped behind him. By dint of Zebo regathering the ball, Cian Healy scored off the recycle for a try that eclipsed his own try that day.

Zebo would assuredly have achieved more in the Test arena had he not decided to join Racing in 2018 when still at the peak of his powers, as evidenced by 16 tries in 26 games in his first season in Paris, and 60 tries in 144 appearances there in total.

But he will have no regrets about that decision, as sampling the Top 14 was an itch that he always wanted to scratch, all the more so by being based among extended family in Paris.

Entirely in keeping with his personality, Zebo was always inspired by big crowds and rose to the big occasions, and he’ll finish his career as the third highest try-scorer ever in the Champions Cup on 35, just behind Vincent Clerc on 36 and Chris Ashton on 41, and the most prolific Irish try scorer in the competition’s history ahead of Brian O’Driscoll on 33. He is Munster’s record try-scorer with 72 in 173 appearances to date.

Rugby being a traditionally po-faced sport with its reserved Anglo origins, much like his kindred spirit and buddy/team-mate at Racing 92 Finn Russell, Zebo’s evident enjoyment of playing rugby was frowned upon by some, although his infectious smile and interaction with crowds also made him a huge fans’ favourite.

When his name was serenaded by the Red Army in what would be his final Champions Cup appearance in Munster’s Round of 16 defeat by Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens, Zebo was surreptitiously egging them on.

The trademark try-scoring celebration when creating a ‘Z’ shape with one thumb on top of the other – the idea of kids when he visited a school one day – was also disapproved of by some, but it was just a bit of fun. Also in keeping with his personality, he has a generous spirit, as evidenced by his charity work and the time he affords supporters.

Murray has been chiding him to play for another season but presuming he is part of the Munster team in their final home game of the season at Thomond Park against Ulster on Saturday week, no doubt Zebo’s name will be serenaded along with chants of ‘one more year’.

With Munster flying and on course to finish the URC campaign in first place, there’ll be scope for the grandest of farewells yet.

Simon Zebo’s statement

After much thought, I’ve decided that this season will be my last playing the game I love. It has been a dream come true, making memories and friends for life and travelling the world with amazing people.

A huge thank you to my family, friends, teammates, coaches and supporters – without ye none of this would have been possible. I am truly grateful for all the love and support over the years.

I’ve loved every second, it’s been some craic and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Lots of Love

Zeebs

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