Friday 27 April 2018

Analysis - Zebo's career move should not be used to deny him green shirt

Simon Zebo will bid farewell to Munster at the end of the season. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo will bid farewell to Munster at the end of the season. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Simon Zebo's ability to take the breath away has been a hallmark of his career.

On Saturday in Thomond Park, that trademark quality of producing the unexpected, amidst a maelstrom of so much predictable grunting and grinding on a dark, dank evening, when the ball seemed an enemy of all who carried it, splashed colour upon so much grey.

Only he could have essayed an outrageous attempted flick pass behind his back, a sleight of hand that seemed so utterly out of kilter on an occasion that represented so much that is wrong about a sport where immense physicality and power has threatened to suck such skill towards the extremes of near extinction.

Quite simply, it was a beauty in a field of beasts.

Last night, for Munster and Ireland supporters, at least, it seemed as if a terrible beauty had been unfurled as Zebo once more took everyone by surprise when it was announced that a move away, to Racing 92 and his former colleague, Ronan O'Gara, had been confirmed.

They may have hoped against hope that it may not have happened but, now that it has, the deep disappointment will sting, so soon after the loss of Donnacha Ryan from the playing ranks a few months ago.

The simple pastoral pleasure of merely staying at Munster is no longer the be all and end all. This is the reality of the professional world within which all exist.

Substantial

Ryan's absence has not been sufficiently replaced; it could be argued that Zebo's loss is far more substantial. They say no player is irreplaceable, and there may be just as capable full-backs in Munster and Ireland, but no player can sprinkle stardust upon his sport like Zebo.

The Irish national team, with its seemingly blithe insistence on blocking a player's route to the international team should they deign to pursue a career in another country - an arbitrary imposition, as was understandable in Jonathan Sexton's case - will attempt to absorb the loss and move on from it.

For Munster, undergoing another period of uncertainty in its coaching ranks as it seeks to recapture former European glories, they will be afforded no such luxury once the 27-year-old finally fulfils the last line of his contract.

They will feel they can fill the breach.

Zebo has never shirked away from the fact that he wanted to play abroad at some stage; he had been linked with Toulouse before and, even during the last Six Nations campaign, reiterated his desire to one day play in a land where so many of his family reside.

It's just that nobody thought it conceivable that the move would come this soon.

The irony is that, despite a lengthy period of mistrust between him and the national coach Joe Schmidt, who had characteristically, but correctly, demanded much more of Zebo than the player seemed willing to give, his place in the Ireland starting XV had never been so assured.

Schmidt, it is fair to say, was a distant sceptic at first; the rugby ascetic and artist were a twain that could, it appeared, never meet.

Zebo was omitted from an entire Six Nations and then, after playing almost entirely in another, was dropped for the final-day consummation of a title in Edinburgh. He played nine successive games at one stage but then exited stage left.

He was not trusted in a World Cup, too, excised precisely at a moment when a squad dwindling in personnel and narrowing in coaching focus bowed out to a Puma side whose wide areas were seemingly packed with a glut of players who shared his array of attacking flair.

Zebo had to change; but Schmidt bowed to the remedial work also.

The Chicago coup against the All Blacks could not have been possible had Schmidt stuck to his rigid playing style; it has been no coincidence that Zebo had become central to it.

Now he has decided to walk away from an international career at the age of 27, and most probably a World Cup in Japan two years from now, for the IRFU may be forced to maintain their exclusion policy.

Former Grand Slam-winner Tomás O'Leary has argued in these pages before that this might be a blinkered approach on behalf of the IRFU and we would tend to agree with him.

Schmidt is not the first national coach to bemoan the limited nature of the talent pool available to him - it's not for nothing that the IRFU have extended their talons into England in an attempt to hoover up more players, much to the RFU's displeasure.

It would seem quite illogical then to deliberately restrict selection, particularly when, like Sexton, the player involved is one of Ireland's prime attackers, not to mention the ancillary benefits he brings as one of the sport's most marketable commodities in the country.

The IRFU argue that they are merely accentuating the benefits of their ability to protect player's welfare by restricting the amount of matches they play, ensuring they are best placed to prosper in Champions Cup and international action, but even some domestic-based players, Sexton amongst them, have occasionally baulked at these restrictions.

Also, the Top 14 is presented as a ferocious slog, albeit mitigated by huge squad numbers, where rotation is much more frequent than acknowledged, and although clubs are obliged to release players for international duty, that does not include the frequent squad gatherings that take place outside of international windows.

This brought the IRFU and Sexton's former club, Racing 92, into much conflict when they previously attempted to tread such a fine line, although the player was at that time injured playing for Ireland as much as he was for his club.

This means that Donnacha Ryan effectively "retired" himself when he left Munster last summer but the circumstances should conceivably be more flexible for a back-line player, for whom the rigours would be far less physical.

The IRFU want to prevent a "player drain" but the number of Irish international players, at the peak of their powers, who have left the cushioned security of their homestead can be counted upon one hand.

Marty Moore left Leinster but he was not even a guaranteed first-choice at his club; so too JJ Hanrahan at Munster; the latter has already returned and Moore may be at Ulster next season.

Dazzling

Zebo, too, is almost certain to return at some stage and Thomond Park will again bear witness to his dazzling skills.

For now, it seems a shame that Ireland will be denied them. Would an Irish supporter in Japan prefer to have him as an option in a tight knockout game rather than sitting on his couch as a cheerleader?

Zebo has made this move for professional reasons - but also for personal reasons, to provide a future for his young family.

If the IRFU had been serious about retaining him, they would have offered him a superior contract during his last re-negotiation, rather than scrambling around now for extra washers.

After a weekend that saw a concussed player return to the field, another removed in a neck brace, still more carted off with broken, bruised and contorted limbs, his insistence on doing what he feels is right for his career cannot be gainsaid.

It just seems a pity that a similarly enlightened approach cannot be taken by the IRFU. We may know more about their intentions when this week's squad for the November internationals is released.

Irish Independent

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