Monday 23 September 2019

Comment - Simon Zebo's international exile must start right now

Simon Zebo, pictured today, will leave Munster at the end of the season. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo, pictured today, will leave Munster at the end of the season. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Cormac Byrne

Munster and Irish rugby has been rocked by today's news that Simon Zebo will leave at the end of the season but we shouldn't be shocked, this move was well signposted.

Huge questions will be asked of the IRFU and the lengths they went to to keep the eccentric full-back at Thomond Park but the bottom line is that Zebo wanted this move and has spoken about it for a long time.

The IRFU and Munster couldn't hope to match the huge money on offer.

Zebo's decision is not solely motivated by money. His father Arthur is from the island of Martinique and he has always had a desire to experience the ruby culture in France.

Former teammates Paddy Butler, Sean Dougall and Dave Foley are already plying their trade at Pau, Zebo's most likely destination, and Simon Mannix, a former back coach at Munster, is the head coach there. Racing 92 are also chasing his signature and he would join Ronan O'Gara and Donnacha Ryan if he moves to Paris. Having familiar faces at his new club will help immensely.

To lose a talent like Zebo's when he is 27 and in the prime of his career will be galling to Munster and Irish fans.

The timing couldn't be worse for Joe Schmidt.

Halfway through a Rugby World Cup cycle is not the time you want to lose one of your only true gamebreakers.

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Zebo has continued on an upward curve in recent seasons and focusing his prodigious talent at full-back has yielded serious dividends.

He has finally earned Schmidt's trust and after being a fringe player for years and has been upgraded to a guaranteed starter, making this move even more difficult to fathom.

Sentimentality needs to go out the window now. While he'll remain in Munster until the end of the season, Zebo international exile should begin now.

Schmidt is gearing towards a World Cup in two years time and Zebo isn't going to be there. If he's not going to be in Japan he needs to be discarded from the international setup.

Johnny Sexton was an exceptional case. He continued to play international rugby while in Paris but he was irreplaceable.

Schmidt has full-backs Rob Kearney (returning this week), Joey Carbery and Tiernan O'Halloran in his ranks going forward.

Injury issues have bedevilled Kearney, Carbery's rugby education is still at an early stage and O'Halloran is short on big game experience at international level but they are now the main options at 15.

There is a possibility that Zebo could return in a few years but for the moment, his international career is over.

If we make an exception for Zebo, we risk haemorrhaging top players to England and France.

It may seem cruel but if the game against Japan on June 16 is Zebo's last in a green jersey then so be it. He has made his choice.

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