“Pressure? I don’t take too much notice”With the Rugby World Cup almost upon us, Irish international Simon Zebo talks about Ireland’s chances after winning this year’s Six Nations
It is fair to say that there is a certain amount of pressure on Ireland as they head into this year’s Rugby World Cup. They come into on the back of their 2nd Six Nations win in a row, and with the tournament happening closer to home this time, they can expect to have the fans on their side throughout. The Red Bulletin talked to Simon Zebo – man of the match in a recent test against Scotland – about his team’s chances, playing closer to home and being prepared for the biggest stage of them all.
THE RED BULLETIN: The World Cup is rugby’s biggest stage – how do you prepare for a massive event like that?
SIMON ZEBO: The main thing is getting some good, hard training under the belt – if you’re feeling and playing well the mental aspects take care of themselves. It’s all about making sure we’re in the right condition and going out and performing well. I like to practice my skills a lot and make sure they’re on point for game day. It’s important the bag of tricks are firing well just in case a try-scoring situation does occur – when one of those rare chances do present themselves I want to make sure I nail it.
But there must be a certain amount of pressure on you guys?
You’ve just got to take every game as it comes and not think of the bigger picture, else you might get a bit taken aback. Pressure? I wouldn’t take too much notice to be honest – I just focus on myself, make sure I’m playing well to benefit the team. All the outside pressures they never really matter – people always have expectations or whatever but for me each game is a final, so I just try to go out and play well for each game.
Ireland is coming into the tournament having won two Six Nations titles in a row. That must be a good place to be in?
It’s a good little confidence booster at the back of the mind, just knowing that we’re able to perform on the big stage – but it is going to be a game by game thing. It’s going to be all about form so these summer warm-up games are crucial. We have to get our form and build the momentum nicely into the World Cup.
How important were the summer training camps for the morale of the team?
They were extremely important. We’re going to be together throughout pre-season and the six-to-eight weeks of the World Cup itself so it’s key to build that rapport and bond – otherwise you turn into robots and you’ll be sick of the sight of each other by the end of pre-season! It’s good for squad morale and squad building – even though there’s really hard work to be done, there’s still time for that bit of fun and that bit of craic that brings the lads together. It’s important that we make the most of our days off, too – when you’re on tour for a long time it can be mentally draining so those days can make the world of difference to reboot the batteries. For me, it’s a massive part of the preparation.
With the tournament happening closer to home this time than New Zealand 2011, do you think that will make a big difference?
Definitely. It makes it feel like a home fixture. The tournament will be littered with Irish fans so it’’ll be magic – especially playing the southern hemisphere teams if we were to come across them, it’ll be like the 16th man for us. I’d say it’s going to be pretty daunting if we were to play England and there were 80,000 English fans singing ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ – it would be a lot easier if it was in the Aviva [Stadium] full of Irish people. But the fans are going to make a massive difference and hopefully they can spur us on.
What has been your biggest challenge throughout your career?
Probably coming back from injuries. Like when I made my debut in the  Six Nations against Wales and scored a try, and then in the next match against England I broke my foot 10 minutes into the game. And then the following year, in the first game of the Heineken Cup [where Zebo was playing for provincial side Munster] I broke my foot again and was out for 10 weeks. It’s just unlucky, but injuries and the timing of them really make you think about everything and what you’re doing and if you want to keep doing it. Coming back from those injuries took a toll on me mentally.
So has recovery become a big part of your training?
Yeah, the coaching staff will be on top of that but we have a lot of pool sessions and stretching sessions and all those things. Training for 60 minutes is really tough and recovery is even more important, to make sure you’re really fresh all the time. We’re getting into a big block of warm-up matches and then the World Cup so recovery is going to play it’s role for sure. The coaching and medical staff have a very sharp eye on things like that – swimming, stretching, ice baths…
During a big tournament like the World Cup, how much do tactics and strategy come into play?
We do a lot of analysis before the game, making sure everyone knows who they’re up against and what marks they have to hit, before we go out and execute it. And then after the match, we’ll be searching through the video and trying to figure out where we made our mistakes. It’s not too strenuous but the prep work is much different in international rugby as opposed to provincial level. The amount of time that goes into knowing your opponent is really stepped up.
When you were working your way up to international level was there anyone who inspired you?
[Munster and Ireland fly half] Ronan O’Gara. He was a hero when I was growing up. I’d always loved Munster and even though he played a different position to me, I just admired his mental strength and his love of the game and desire to win. That was why he’s one of the greatest fly halves who ever played. That mental strength – you can definitely see it separates good from great.