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Friday 20 September 2019

Zebo as willing as ever to answer Ireland's call

The rugby star hasn't ruled out a return to the national team - after Joe Schmidt leaves, of course. He talks to Wayne O'Connor

HOME FROM HOME: Living in Paris and the son of a Frenchman, Simon Zebo is still keen to resume his Ireland career
HOME FROM HOME: Living in Paris and the son of a Frenchman, Simon Zebo is still keen to resume his Ireland career
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

A year ago, Simon Zebo moved to Paris with his partner and their two young children, knowing it was unlikely he would be hopping on a plane to represent Ireland any time soon.

The move came after a conversation with Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, a stickler for detail and ruthless protectionist. He didn't approve of Zebo's move and wanted him to stay in Munster where, within the IRFU structures, he could be carefully managed to stave off injury. The pair have not spoken since. The move killed Zebo's ambition to be part of this year's Rugby World Cup.

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Zebo appeared in a video last week produced by betting firm Paddy Power. It featured a series of skits in which he learned Japanese and sent late night texts to "JS" in a last ditch attempt to earn a place in Ireland's squad. Despite the jokes about "poisoning" someone, Zebo insists the video was "a bit of craic", but he clearly feels hard done by. Before the move, he was a regular in the Ireland set-up.

"I am a very proud Irishman and I would absolutely love to play for my country again at some point but right now people involved just seem to be a bit difficult," he aid.

"I can understand that. It's tricky. He's the coach at the end of the day and he picks the players he wants. I'll leave that to him but I know I love playing for my country. I loved every minute of it."

The pill is an even more bitter one to swallow because Paris has been so good to him. At 29, the Corkonian feels he is at the peak of his powers, training and playing well and enjoying life off the pitch. Paris suits him.

His father is French so, despite growing up in Blackrock on the outskirts of Cork, he was immersed in French language and culture since birth. This also feeds his itch to live outside his comfort zone.

"I see the big picture in terms of my long-term plans, my rugby career, and I just want to experience as much as I can in as short a window as it is.

"Where we are situated we are probably 20 minutes from the Eiffel Tower and city centre. My kids go to school near the Eiffel Tower so picking them up from school and being in the mix around the bustle of Paris is nice but at the same time we are in a quiet suburb where the pace is a bit slower and that is nice as well.

"You are anonymous over here and that suits me. You can go out for dinner, you can go for lunch or to the park with your kids and not be noticed or asked for photos. You can enjoy those quality moments without having eyes on you."

"Everyone in Ireland 99pc of the time meant no harm. For the people who follow rugby, and it's a professional sport, rugby players are at the forefront. So when it comes to photos, and people like to meet you, sometimes it is nice to be anonymous."

Home is never far away. At the end of last month he and Irish clubmate Donnacha Ryan received a hamper of Clonakilty sausages and puddings. A stack of Tayto is regularly brought over and he keeps and eye on what is happening at home.

"Roy [Keane] got a bit of a backlash and it seems he is public enemy number one at the moment, even more so than Donald Trump," he says of his fellow Corkman's outburst against another former Ireland international, Jon Walters. Keane and Walters had a number of high-profile bust-ups during their careers and last week Keane was criticised for speaking dismissively of a number of tragedies Walters suffered in the past.

Zebo said he doesn't agree with Keane but sees admirable qualities in him.

"Whether or not you like him or whether or not you agree with him, at least he is honest. There is a lot of bullshit around this generation and people trying to say one thing and then going behind people's backs and saying another. It is between the two of them to sort out but I wouldn't go down Roy's route if I had any animosity towards someone. I'd probably say it to their face."

He doesn't speak of animosity for Schmidt but certainly feels a sense of injustice in not being selected for Ireland. The fact Johnny Sexton made the same move and remained part of the Ireland coach's plans during that period resonates. "Johnny is obviously a very important player for Ireland and has a very good relationship with Joe so obviously it a bit different but it's not like I am representing New Zealand and have gone to play in France. I am literally an hour away, so it would be very feasible to do."

Nonetheless, he won't be in Japan when the Rugby World Cup kicks off in two weeks' time. He is hopeful of a return when Schmidt steps downs and is replaced by Andy Farrell after the tournament but seems more hopeful than expectant of a call-up.

"Whether or not he decides to bring me back, that's irrelevant. I just like the guy and I wish him all the best when his time comes. I would love to sit down and talk with him and see if something will work but at the moment it is probably a non-runner until Joe leaves I suppose."

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