Racing move puts Zebo Ireland career in doubt
Zebo - 'I've always noted the draw of playing abroad'
Simon Zebo's Ireland career could be over after Munster yesterday confirmed that the star full-back will leave the province at the end of the season having turned down the province's offer of a new contract.
The 27-year-old is poised to link up with former team-mates Ronan O'Gara and Donnacha Ryan at Parisian club Racing 92 having secured a lucrative offer from the Top 14 giants.
The in-demand Ireland full-back had offers from a host of French clubs including Pau, while he was also offered an improved deal to remain with his home province in Ireland with the IRFU and private backers lending financial support.
However, they couldn't compete with the financial offer on the table from the moneyed 2016 French champions.
Although moves to France cannot be formally announced until April, pre-contractual agreements are common. Zebo has reached a deal to join the club and as a result Munster released their statement earlier yesterday.
A fluent French speaker whose father Arthur hails from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, the 35-times-capped Ireland international has previously said he would be open to leaving for France.
The move will come as a major blow to the province. Zebo is Munster's all-time record try scorer and will be difficult to replace.
The announcement also denies the national team of a key player midway through the 2019 World Cup cycle.
Under current policy, the union do not pick players based abroad and his exile may begin during next month's international window. It remains to be seen whether Joe Schmidt will include Zebo in his squad for the November series which is scheduled to be named later this week.
Injuries to Rob Kearney and Jared Payne could force his hand, but once the Munster man departs at the end of the season it is highly unlikely that he'll be called up by his country unless in cases of emergency.
Although it took some time for him to win Schmidt over, the Corkman has been a regular in the starting side over the past year, starring in the win over New Zealand in Chicago. Having lost Ryan and Zebo in a matter of months, the union will be on high alert as a number of their key players come to the end of their contracts in June.
Jared Payne and Rob Kearney's deals expire at the end of this season, as do those of key Munster leaders CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony.
Ireland captain Rory Best and his Ulster and Lions colleague Iain Henderson are also nearing the end of their current contracts.
- Read more: Simon Zebo will leave Munster at the end of this season: 'I have to do what's best for my family'
Although the financial package turned Zebo's head, his heart has long desired a move abroad and as recently as last week he spoke of the draw of France for his young family.
"Working closely with the IRFU we put ourselves in the best position possible with an excellent offer," Munster chief Garrett Fitzgerald said.
"While we are largely successful in retaining our best players within the Irish system, we know it is out of our hands on this occasion. We are hugely disappointed to see Simon leave."
"We wish to thank him for his immense contribution to the province and wish him and his family all the best for the future."
Zebo paid tribute to his home province, but said the pull of living and working outside of Ireland was too strong for him to resist.
"This club has moulded me into the player and person I am today," he said. "I will forever be grateful for that. It has always been my dream to play for my home club, wearing the red jersey while representing my family, friends and local community.
"However, I have always noted the draw to play abroad one day, and in not taking this decision lightly I have decided on what's best for my family.
"With my partner Elvira and two young children, Jacob and Sofia, we are planning for our future and this is the right time for us to make the move.
"As much as I will miss everything about this place - the players, staff, supporters and friends for life - I know there are many more special nights in Thomond Park and Irish Independent Park to be had.
"I will continue to enjoy wearing my jersey with pride and will give my all in making sure Munster are successful this season."
Replacing Zebo will be high up new coach Johann van Graan's list of jobs when he arrives in Limerick on a full-time basis next month.
There has been some speculation that Connacht full-back Tiernan O'Halloran is a target, but Munster have failed in previous bids to lure players from the western province.
They could be allowed to go overseas, but they would be competing with the same clubs who have been able to out-bid them for Zebo and Ryan in recent seasons.
Racing are among the biggest spenders in the world game, but the market has been inflated by the likes of Bristol who have lured Charles Piutau from next season despite being in the second tier of English rugby right now and Montpellier who were able to tempt Aaron Cruden away from New Zealand.
The IRFU would point to the talent within the squad where Andrew Conway has impressed this season during Zebo's injury absence and could be primed to profit for club and country but, given they unexpectedly lost Felix Jones to retirement at 28 in 2015, this is a big blow to the province's depth-chart.
Rassie Erasmus was allowed to sign South African Gerbrandt Grobler for a year while he worked on a long-term successor to Ryan in Tadhg Beirne, but there is not a wealth of Irish qualified back-three players outside of the Irish system anywhere near the class of Zebo.
Munster will be further constrained by the fact that in 2018 the new World Rugby eligibility laws will be in place meaning it takes five seasons for a foreign player to qualify to play for Ireland as a so-called 'special project' which could further limit their options.
Until that point, Irish provinces could lure talented New Zealanders, South Africans and Australians with the carrot of being eligible for Ireland after three seasons, with Stander and Payne the most successful examples.
Within the squad, Darren Sweetnam and Alex Wootton have done well when called upon, but both are out-and-out wingers while Keith Earls has not played at full-back for some time.
JJ Hanrahan is another option, but he will have his eyes on the No 10 shirt.
On the pitch, the team will miss Zebo's creative tendencies and capacity to produce magic moments, while commercially the fans' favourite with undoubted stardust will be a big loss to the brand.
Munster's loss will be Racing's gain as Ronan O'Gara links up with a player he last weekend described as "brilliant" after his team's defeat at Thomond Park.
Zebo is in line to replace former All Black Joe Rokocoko who is out of contract at the end of the season and join a star-studded backline that contains the likes of Dan Carter, Pat Lambie, Teddy Thomas and Virimi Vakatawa at the Parisians' soon-to-be-opened state-of-the-art U-Arena.
Zebo will get his chance to visit his new home when the two teams meet in the Champions Cup in January.
Munster secured a hard-fought 14-7 win over the Parisians at Thomond on Saturday.