David Kelly: 'Simon Zebo's brief return home may prompt thoughts of a reunion'

Winger could fast-track his Munster comeback with an eye on Ireland call

12 January 2019; Simon Zebo of Racing 92 prior to the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 5 match between Ulster and Racing 92 at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast, Co. Antrim. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

David Kelly

Simon Zebo had a good reason for missing work last weekend.

A new life in his new world.

Now, just a matter of days later, his old way of life will collide with the new as he steps once more upon hallowed, familiar turf.

And so, as he returns to work this weekend many will contemplate, perhaps even he in the quieter moments, if such are possible during a Saturday evening tea-time Thomond European date, if it might ever be conceivable that he might some day come back for good.

Back to his true home.

And the renewal of an old life, one which might still be able to provide him with as much fulfilment in its professional possibilities as that which he currently enjoys in the Parisien banlieues.

A third child - Noah Anthony Fernandez Zebo, a brother to Jacob and Sofia - entered the world of Zebo and his partner Elvira Fernandez last week.

Once he had posted the news on social media, the subsequent whirr of interest reflected that Zebo's name remains immensely popular in this country, especially amongst those who may not necessarily profess a slavish interest in rugby union.

Tomorrow evening in Thomond Park would represent a timely occasion for him to remind those who are intensely interested in the sport that his onfield presence remains just as potent as his online persona.


One of the keenest observers is likely to be the new Ireland coach, Andy Farrell, a man who straddles the line between a tired regime and one that seeks radical renewal in order to re-engage with its disappointed players and public.

The pair enjoyed a positive working relationship when Farrell assisted Joe Schmidt, who clearly did not share the same sense of kinship with the enigmatic Corkonian.

And, while the Englishman has not yet spoken directly to Zebo, the pair will engage before the next Six Nations campaign.

We should not, however, expect a recall for the exile in Paris merely because there is a new man at the helm; Farrell will tread softly before locking horns with David Nucifora, the IRFU's supreme commander, and a man who would have shared Schmidt's opinions on Zebo's status.

And, while Zebo's position as the symbol of resistance to Schmidt's astringent final year in charge of Ireland grew exponentially, even he knows that the removal of the Kiwi from the scene doesn't alter his international picture one iota.

In any event, even were he to be somehow deemed available once more to Farrell this spring, Zebo's name would probably not detain the selectors for the longest time; it will be difficult enough to perm two from Keith Earls, Jordan Larmour, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway.

The bottom line is that he will not be picked while playing in Paris; hence the possibility of him perhaps seeking to refuse the option of a third year with Racing 92 in order to return to Munster, a scenario which both parties had tacitly outlined when he left in the first place.

It is a tricky dilemma for Zebo and, similarly to when he departed in the first place, it will not strictly be professional reasons which will influence his decision.

Given that he is likely to earn perhaps double what cash-strapped Munster can afford to pay him, the arrival of a third child might determine his immediate priority.

He desperately wants to feature in a second World Cup in France but that competition is four years away; in such a brutal profession, an individual's short-term plans are more relevant to a long-term future.

Should Zebo wish to feature in a green shirt - on Nucifora's terms - he may have to delay his return until the 2021/22 season but would Munster necessarily want him back?

The obvious answer is yes, but were the province to resurrect former glories in the meantime, propelled by two form international wingers, Zebo could discover that his homecoming dream might be a victim of Munster's success.

The province's chances of ending their trophy drought remain as uncertain as ever, notwithstanding a positive start to the season, but there is still a genuine sense of something impressive building within the walls at University of Limerick.

Stephen Larkham's addition to the ticket is the most intriguing, threatening to transform Munster from a strait-jacketed, South African prototype into an Antipodean antidote to kick-and-rush rugby.

After all, this is the same coach and province which deemed it prudent to drop Zebo for a Champions Cup semi-final two seasons ago - ironically against Racing 92 - when their game was nowhere near the required level to break Europe's glass ceiling.

They are travelling a different road now, though, and anyone who loves their sport can only anticipate just how Larkham's brains and Zebo's feet might dovetail.

Just as Zebo was once forced to moderate his innate instincts in an Irish shirt, tomorrow night may demonstrate just how much Munster have changed, too.

"It will be strange going back," he says, "but really exciting too."

Conor Murray remains a close friend and appreciates that Zebo's return, along with that of Donnchadh Ryan, the popular second-row and another prematurely evicted from international contention, will arouse huge interest.

It will be the briefest of reunions between firm friends. Zebo will not be alone, one feels, in allowing himself to believe that the next time he might return in a red shirt.