Monday 22 October 2018

Alan Quinlan on Zebo move: As far as representing your country goes, you can't put a price on that

With Simon Zebo omitted, I'd pick Rob Kearney at full-back as we need to stick with the tried and trusted for South Africa opener

Simon Zebo during last night’s Guinness PRO14 match between Connacht and Munster at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo during last night’s Guinness PRO14 match between Connacht and Munster at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

It's October, 2005 and if there was ever a time I needed support during my career, this is it. I'm 31 and still chasing that elusive Heineken Cup medal - but I can't walk.

A cruciate ligament tear just after half-time against Sale, in the pokey surrounds of Stockport County's Edgeley Park, is threatening to end my already injury-blighted career.

A star-studded Sharks outfit containing the bamboozling footwork of Jason Robinson, the dependable boot of Charlie Hodgson, and a beefy pack led by the bullish Andrew Sheridan and Sebastien Chabal, have rocked us 27-13 in the first round of our latest Heineken Cup campaign. But I have bigger things to worry about.

I've amassed 23 caps for my country but they stretch thinly across a six-year period.

My fitness issues are racking up at an alarming rate, yet I have just begun contract negotiations with the IRFU and by January, still buried in rehab work and months off a return to action, I have signed a new, two-year professional contract.

It was a hellish time in my career but the confidence the IRFU showed in me, and seeing them take such an active interest in my recovery, was incredibly uplifting. Less than six months after going under the knife, I was hitting rucks, albeit only for a few minutes as a substitute, during Munster's maiden Heineken Cup success.

The IRFU are often criticised for their selection policies but the best interests of the national team are at the heart of it all.

It may seem unfair on Simon Zebo that Bundee Aki can be selected for Ireland, or that Johnny Sexton can have his French sojourn at little cost to his international prospects.

The Sexton situation is particularly complex considering his importance to the Ireland team and the fact that when the fly-half returned to Leinster two years ago it reinforced the IRFU's belief that they could not risk opening the floodgates.

Vigilance was the only option, especially considering the magnetic pull of the bulging coffers in England and France.

There may be much more lucrative contracts available overseas but the loyalty of the IRFU is tough to quantify in monetary terms, and to be fair to the organisation they have put excellent structures in place for players since the game turned professional.

It's important to remember too that contract offers may be better overseas but there is additional earning power at home through Ireland match fees and commercial opportunities. And as far as representing your country goes, you can't put a price on that.

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It's tough on Simon and I do have empathy for him, but he knew this omission was coming, just maybe not so soon. It's an unwritten rule that a move abroad effectively puts your international career on hold.

I must admit that if I was in Joe Schmidt's shoes I would still have picked him in my squad for the November internationals; he is still a Munster player and we have a number of absentees and injury concerns at full-back.

With such a short turnaround to our toughest assignment in next month's international window, the Ireland head coach has some big selections to make, none more so than in the No 15 shirt.

The inclusion of Rob Kearney is a big nod of confidence to someone who has been through the wringer with injury, and assuming the Leinster full-back comes through the next two weeks unscathed, I expect him to start against South Africa.

You'd have to have fears around Kearney's fitness going forward but Joe needs to play his strongest hand against South Africa; this is not a Test for a lot of experimentation - save that for Fiji and Argentina.

I expect Joey Carbery to be Sexton's understudy, so starting him at full-back against the Springboks would be too risky.

Kearney's experience and strength in the air will be required against the traditional South Africa kicking game, which edges him ahead of Schmidt's other options in that department.

Jared Payne's continued absence restricts Joe's backline options considerably, while I must admit I was surprised by Tiernan O'Halloran's omission.

Young players these days are a lot more resilient, a lot more confident in themselves. Look at someone like Carbery coming off the bench at the age of 21 in Chicago last year against New Zealand and the composure he showed.

The players are maturing earlier these days but there is still a danger that they will struggle on such a grand stage. If they do, it could set them back significantly.

I'm a pragmatist when it comes to these games, and you have to play your strongest hand to win these big Test matches.

There is very little preparation time for the coaches and that's a huge challenge. There is a lot of detail to get through for a Test match against a sharp side who are coming off a relatively positive finish to their Rugby Championship campaign.

While South Africa's final game finished in defeat to New Zealand, they played some scintillating rugby in a match they probably should have won.

A lot of the Irish players pick themselves at the moment, particularly in the front five.

Rory Best hasn't played a lot of rugby and we don't know yet if he will get to Japan. But Seán Cronin hasn't been getting picked regularly at Leinster and has been left out, while the loss of Niall Scannell to injury reduces options at hooker even further.

You want your leaders out against South Africa and the Lions props Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong have to be selected, despite Cian Healy's impressive recent performances.

Iain Henderson and Devin Toner are the obvious choices in the second-row. Looking back to the England Six Nations game earlier this year, Henderson was fantastic, before going on to perform brilliantly in the Lions tour, where he was very unlucky not to get a Test jersey for the series decider.

The back-row is the most competitive area, as it always has been. But again, I'd go with the tried and trusted. Peter O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien and CJ Stander should start against the Springboks even though none of them have reached top form yet this season.

There is massive pressure on the trio to perform coming from the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan, Dan Leavy and Tommy O'Donnell. Josh van der Flier's recent injury was really unfortunate as he has been flying for Leinster too.

Sexton and Conor Murray are streets ahead of their nearest half-back rivals but at least there is plenty of more depth at scrum-half to keep the Munster man looking over his shoulder.

Kieran Marmion was excellent against England this year and Luke McGrath has also proven himself to consistently be a very good player, so we're in a better position at No 9 than we were.

The level below Sexton is probably not where you want it to be - Carbery is next in line but with Paddy Jackson unavailable, our options at fly-half are worryingly light, although Ian Keatley's form in recent weeks has been another positive.

Jacob Stockdale gets the nod from me on the wing because his form has been brilliant and he's strong, physical and quick.

With just two caps to his name he may be considered a bit inexperienced for a match of this magnitude but he's one of the form wingers in the country and has already proven he has the temperament for big occasions.

Keith Earls would be my other winger; he's looked a different player over the last 12 months - he is so exciting when he gets on the ball, full of confidence and so clinical when the try-line comes into view.

Everyone may not agree with the decision to include Aki but he's available, is a phenomenal talent, and already has a terrific understanding with Robbie Henshaw.

With Garry Ringrose missing, it's the most logical combination in the Irish midfield. Having said that Rory Scannell is unlucky to miss out on the squad and could have offered something different to the other centres in the squad, Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey, who are direct runners much like Aki and Henshaw.

Henshaw has had a huge couple of weeks, hitting the ground running this campaign after such a hectic previous 12 months.

With the World Cup less than two years away, there is a great opportunity for the players in this 38-man squad to make a big statement over the next month.

Irish Independent

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