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Schmidt simply can't ignore Zebo

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Simon Zebo has become impossible for Schmidt to ignore

Simon Zebo fired a rare blank on Saturday, the smiling assassin unable to add to his grand tally of six tries so far this season for Racing 92.

It’s a ridiculously rich vein of form. Before his Champions Cup trip to Scarlets on the same day his former club Munster were at Exeter 155 miles away, Zebo needed just 416 minutes in six full-back appearances for the Parisians to emphatically blaze his way to the top of the French Top 14’s try-scoring chart.

Contrast that potency with last season’s farewell campaign at Munster, 25 appearances and 1,474 minutes’ play but only seven tries.

An effervescent player, he tried to always play with a smile on his face in Ireland. Now has every reason to smile brightly because he is playing so well overseas.

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What gives? It’s clear whatever shackles were holding him back have been smashed into smithereens and with five of his six tries arriving at his new U Arena home, the quicker 4G surface is obviously suiting his fleet-of-foot style.

A glance at his Top 14 showreel showcases this added pep to his step. A week ago there was a classy show-and-go against high-flying Lyon, trickery that left the opposition out-half grasping at air.

BACK-THREE CLUB STRIKE RATE 2018/19

                           PLAYED TRIES MINUTES
Simon Zebo               7         6          496
Jordan Larmour       5          3         385
Jacob Stockdale       2          2         160
Darren Sweetnam    6          2         470
Andrew Conway       5         2         400
Fergus McFadden    4         2           305
Keith Earls                 2          1          160
Rob Kearney             4         0           293
Dave Kearney           4         0           175
Adam Byrne              1         0           80

His previous appearance versus Castres highlighted the Z factor to his burgeoning X-factor link play with No10 Finn Russell. Zebo twice ran crafty support lines from outside the 22 to receive possession from the Scot, step through some flat-footed opponents and score with aplomb.

It was similar at Toulouse, Zebo spying a gap and ghosting in between two flailing players, and before that he similarly used his speed and nimbleness to scoring effect versus Clermont and Agen.

Joint Racing boss Laurent Labit is thrilled with his new signing’s immediate impact. ‘Simon’s a world-class player. He makes differences every time he intervenes. He has a game science that also allows him to be opportunistic and to score even from positions he shouldn’t.’

Zebo testing Scarlets’ defence (Getty Images)

Watching from afar, people in Ireland can only be impressed with the very slick way he has settled into his new surroundings. It should surely prompt an uncomfortable question to Joe Schmidt when he unveils his Zebo-less Ireland squad for the four-match November series.

The Irish boss would have hoped the almighty fuss surrounding the player’s departure would have died away once he swapped the banks of the Lee for the Seine in summer.

Out of sight and out of mind, Schmidt would have liked no further debate as to why Zebo is excluded from the international squad.

Now, though, his hot try-scoring streak is re-igniting conversation on whether Ireland should actively exclude overseas based players from selection.

It’s a thorny subject. If Schmidt could persist in selecting Johnny Sexton when the Irish No10 was playing at Racing, why not Zebo?

Schmidt explained his rationale a year ago when omitting Zebo before he had even left Munster, claiming he wasn’t as dependent on the back-three speedster as he was on out-half Sexton whom he knew from their Leinster days before he took on the Ireland job in 2013.

Zebo gets the offload away against Scarlets’ yesterday (Getty Images)

‘To have a thought process very similar to the guy running the team was a real convenience to me going into a new job. That was a part of Johnny’s selection.

‘He has also proven to be, over the last two Lions tours, the starting player in a Lions Test match. Simon has been great for us, but hasn’t reached the same level of selection,’ suggested Schmidt.

The Kiwi insisted the Test door wasn’t totally shut, that form would continue to be monitored. If so, a Schmidt assessment now of how Zebo is playing is pertinent.

A French club pre-season where physical training wasn’t as long or intense as in Ireland has allowed him steal a scoring march on the nine players who have featured in the Ireland back-three positions since the 28-year-old earned the last of his 35 caps in Japan in June 2017.

Simon Zebo in Munster colours (Getty Images)

Zebo has scored three tries more than Jordan Larmour this term, four more than Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Conway, Fergus McFadden and Darren Sweetnam, five more than Keith Earls and a half-dozen more than the Kearney brothers and Adam Byrne.

It’s a glaring difference and with the Ireland squad apparently not due to be announced until after round two of the Champions Cup is complete, it adds a layer of intrigue to next Saturday’s match-up between Zebo and Stockdale when Ulster visit Racing.

Zebo’s face doesn’t fit with Schmidt, but it has certainly lit up the French scene. So popular is “Zeebs” he was even voted this season’s most influential signing in a poll run on French TV’s weekly review of the Top 14 action.

‘They have taken to him because he is as he was at home – he has got a smile constantly on his face playing over here and people like to see that,’ explained Mike Prendergast, the ex-Munster scrum-half who is coaching as assistant with Paul O’Connell at Stade Francais, Racing’s Parisian rivals.

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‘He’s a likeable character, a world-class player. He’s showing that week after week and has struck up a really good on-pitch relationship with Finn Russell.

‘They play on a 4G and that suits him because when he has a bit of space, he really comes into his own. That pitch allows you to express yourself a bit more.

‘He’s scoring plenty of tries. It’s been a really, really good start for him and it’s down to his character, his free spirit.

Zebo during the Six Nations (Getty Images)

‘From talking to Donnacha Ryan (another Munster signing at Racing), the players really enjoy his company on and off the pitch and that really helps, especially as a foreign player coming in.

‘He has adapted through his personality, speaks a bit of French and that helped him. Once your team-mates have confidence in you, it becomes easier.

‘He’s a guy whom players and coaches have reacted very well to. For the culture and what they are trying to build, he’s exactly what Racing were looking for and he has delivered.’

Zebo grew up idolising Frédéric Michalak because of the way he played without fear, without thinking about consequences.

That laissez-faire approach is very different to how he felt in the Ireland set-up, Zebo telling Schmidt he couldn’t play in such a rigid structure and that he was better able to express himself at club level.

So it’s proving, his decision to join Racing, not other suitors such as Lyon or Pau, is paying off handsomely in the French capital. ‘It’s a beautiful city,’ vouched Prendergast, whose young family has settled in quickly to the tapestry of Paris life just like the Zebo clan. ‘There is so much to do here when you have your downtime and that’s a great thing. Rather than everyone knowing you in a smaller town you can get away from rugby on your days off.’

‘When Simon signed it was a bit of a shock. I didn’t think he would leave Ireland so close to the World Cup. But Racing were a team that had won Top14 and would be very competitive in Europe.’

‘It has worked out very, very well so far. It’s still early but he has come a long way in such a short space of time.’

The question is, would Ireland boss Schmidt be inclined to agree?

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Simon Zebo has become impossible for Schmidt to ignore