Thursday 22 August 2019

Neil Francis: Ireland won't miss Simon Zebo but Simon Zebo will miss Ireland

Our marquee players now know what will happen if they decide to follow Zebo's example

'Munster, more than Ireland, will miss Simon Zebo. He is, unfortunately, expendable' Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
'Munster, more than Ireland, will miss Simon Zebo. He is, unfortunately, expendable' Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

This article is not about Eamon Dunphy, but he does appear in it a few times. As contrarians, do we agree with each other on what we say or think or should we automatically disagree by nature? When Eamon dies they could put a revolving headstone on his grave - philosopher on one side, bullshitter on the other.

I like Eamon, he has balls and chutzpah, but when he is wrong, he is glaringly wrong. I watched Reeling In The Years 1990 a while back. Eamon had a couple of clashes with Jack Charlton at press conferences and called Charlton 'a bully who played ugly football'. That point is not up for discussion - it's true.

Maybe what slipped his mind, though, was that since the first World Cup finals were played in 1934, the Republic of Ireland had been dreamy bystanders whenever the big show took place. If Adolf Hitler promised us 4-4-2, the long ball and some limited success but he would work his team whichever way he wanted - we'd have signed him up.

Conformists and compromisers rarely win major trophies let alone get you to the play-offs. No question Charlton ruled his squad with a fist of steel. It is practically a requirement of sports management. Do you think the Republic would have got to the 1990 or 1994 World Cups or the 1988 Europeans with an appeaser or a moderator? Uno duce.

I have heard that Joe Schmidt subjugates his players and imposes his will on them, it's not a form of abuse but it is necessary for success. Eddie Jones treats his squad in the same way, so does Wazza. Joe is an exceptionally personable fellow - great company and somebody you would go to war with - but when it comes to preparing his team he is a ruthless bastard. I love decisive people.

Like all good coaches he is a confident communicator and a great persuader and the sort of guy who never lets his mind rest.

Schmidt had to exercise his mind a few weeks ago. It only took a couple of seconds to formulate a response. Simon Zebo was going to join Racing 92 in France. As soon as the ink was dry on the pre-contract contract, Zebo's international career was over. I am sure when the two meet in the days, weeks and months ahead the discourse will be personable, jolly even, but the scene in Godfather II when Michael Corleone finds out that his brother Fredo has betrayed him has a ring of familiarity here.

"Fredo, you're nothing to me now. You're not a brother, you're not a friend. I don't want to know you or what you do. I don't want to see you at the hotels. I don't want you near my house. When you see our mother I want to know a day in advance so I won't be there. You understand?"

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The decision that Zebo made to end his international career (and that is what it was) is a sobering moment in anyone's life. Joe Corleone takes things like that very seriously. Zebo knew the consequences - at 27 years of age to throw away at least five years - five of your best years in green - is disappointing. He will never play for Ireland again, his last game in the jersey a tuppenny-ha'penny Test match against Japan.

Watching your country play any international match when you could be playing is tough. It is death by a thousand cuts. The draw of the big international occasion and the loss of that great sense of occasion and accomplishment - well, it's very difficult to assuage the feeling of loss. If money comforts you, fair enough. It was interesting that Zebo never mentioned that he was joining his new club in the hope of winning European Cups or the Top 14 title. A financial tipping point had been reached and that was enough.

Funny, so, that Zebo had improved to become the type of player that Joe wanted him to be. Zebo was first capped in June 2012 in New Zealand. In the 55 internationals that Ireland have played since then, Zebo played in 35. Schmidt only started picking Zebo as his starter on a consistent basis in the last two years. In his earlier days, he was not as sure defensively as Joe needed him to be and he was left off the side.

Zebo polished up this area and has been a good-calibre international-class back three player. Not by any means indispensable, but Joe would have liked to have him for the 2019 World Cup and all the intervening games. Your status as an international, your currency, is now. Once you stop playing in the international arena you stop improving as a player. X-Factor? Jordan Larmour has more X-Factor than Zebo. Pace? Keith Earls has more pace and is a superior player to Zebo on all fronts. Did anyone for one minute think that an exception would be made?

The only indispensable will be Conor Murray. Shaun Longstaff, who happens to be Murray's agent as well as Zebo's, might think there will be a bonanza here. The Union will up their bid - maybe a bit of private equity and that will be that.

The players know what will happen if they chase the money. Joe will cut them loose. Schmidt insists "there is no policy". This, I can assure you, is not the case, which brings me back to Eamon Dunphy who famously savaged the domestic league of the FAI - the 'Famous Fried Chicken League' as it was when Dunphy castigated it. The standard of fare, the quality of players, the facilities, the lack of money, the type of people running the game, pathethic crowds turning up to watch the games.

How many top-class players would have to leave before our domestic game turned into the Famous Fried Chicken League? How many marquee players would have to go before the crowds stop coming or the standard falls to unacceptable levels? Deprivation of international rugby is a bargaining tool that the IRFU holds over every player on this island. We look at the effect it is having on Scotland and Wales - some might say not huge but if the drip, drip continues, it will be.

Our opponents next Saturday have been decimated by the loss of their quality players to Europe. I am told somewhere north of 250 quality South Africans are plying their trade in Europe. Pro and semi-pro! I wonder how a European South African XV would do against a South African South African XV?

Last week, Western Province beat the Natal Sharks in Kings Park in Durban. The Currie Cup final is the pinnacle and yet the ground was only three-fifths full and television audiences were poor. There are reasons other than money as to why South African players are leaving in their droves - because their rugby infrastructure is collapsing, the SARFU don't have the financial wherewithal to keep their players and the collapse and downward spiral propagates even further. In five years the Famous Fried Chicken League will have fully visited itself upon South Africa. The drain will get worse, the Springboks will suffer. 57-0 in Albany this summer, and it will get worse.

Munster, more than Ireland, will miss Zebo. He is unfortunately expendable. All negotiations going forward will have one indisputable caveat - leave and you will never play international rugby again. The IRFU and Joe Schmidt have been absolutely correct in their stance. What has happened in South Africa and what could happen to us is far more important than one of our marquee players, or maybe even four or five of our them.

Ireland play South Africa next Saturday without Zebo. They won't miss him. He is, I would say, already missing them. Ireland will play about 65 Test matches coming into Zebo's prime - every single time they play there will be a ping of regret, a cloud of remorse. Sixty-five Tests, that is a lot of quality time slipping through your hands. Ireland will have moved on from Zebo after the Guinness series. Oyonnax away. On Saturday, Ireland will win if they are anyway cohesive because in the words of the great provocateur, "South Africa are not a great team, they are not even a good team."

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