Sunday 20 October 2019

Playing overseas is not just about the money

Simon Zebo of Racing 92
Simon Zebo of Racing 92
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

It is almost 40 years since then-taoiseach Charles Haughey warned: "As a community we are living away beyond our means." For many, the same applies to French rugby, where cash-rich owners have flooded the game with millions of euro to attract the cream of playing talent.

Two-and-a-half years ago it was controversially proposed that two of the great Parisian sides, Stade Francais and Racing 92, would merge. Stade president Thomas Savare said he did not have the funds to keep the club afloat. He said very few teams could survive without the support of a wealthy benefactor.

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"French rugby is living beyond its means," Savare added, almost channelling Haughey. "Everyone has to realise it. We're on an intravenous drip."

That merger was eventually cancelled and while some may worry about whether the cash will continue to flow, there is no doubt French-based players have benefited from money being injected into the game. These include Simon Zebo.

The former Munster man upped sticks and moved to Racing last year, effectively putting his Ireland career on ice. Reports around the time he made the move suggested an eye-watering €700,000 was on offer to entice him away from Thomond Park. He insists the move was not solely about money, but about his heritage (his father is French) and a new way of life.

"The obvious thing for people to say is that I went for the money or I went for this and that - but, to be quite frank, I was offered incredible money in Munster," he told the Sunday Independent.

"The difference in money isn't as huge as people are letting on or would want to believe. They say, 'you're just going for the pay cheque'. Since I was 18 or 19 years old I have wanted to play rugby in France. Being part of a French family, watching French rugby all my life, it was always something I wanted to do and with my age profile and where I was in my career it worked out that this was a good time.

"Money was the last thing that was on my mind in terms of moving. People will say different but I would have been very comfortable staying in Munster too so it wasn't exactly like 'go here for this amount and quadruple your pay cheque'. It's not like that. It was also about the experience, a new lifestyle, culture and playing rugby every weekend against class opposition in packed-out stadiums. There are so many things that went in to it, and finances weren't really at the forefront of my thinking to be honest."

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Zebo is also a Paddy Power brand ambassador and regularly features in the betting firm's promotional social media videos.

He says Ireland-based players are well rewarded for their efforts but the big lure keeping them at home is the chance to represent their country. At present, players who opt to go overseas are not considered for selection for the national team.

"The money players get back in Ireland is very good as well and there is obviously wriggle room for players to get a bit more in Ireland I'd imagine, considering how much the IRFU get, but you also have the lure of playing for your country. Clearly it's not there when you're abroad. That comes in as a factor for different players.

"It just depends on who you are and what you want. If it is money you want and purely money, you could maybe look elsewhere than Ireland. If you have little kids and you want to experience life somewhere else it might be the right time and strike the right box for some people [to go away].

"It is a very short window of a career. Money is obviously involved in that, but life experiences are probably, in my opinion, worth a bit more.

"Winning the Six Nations with Ireland is great and winning and competing at a high level with Munster is everything I wanted to do when I was growing up, but… it's a tricky one."

Four of the best-paid players in the world last year were at French sides and while the sustainability of the money coming into the game there is often questioned, it does give players an option to seek maximum returns during their short careers. However, Zebo is not ruling out a return home before his playing days end.

"The long-term plan is still undecided. I am only 29 years old so I still want to play at the highest level for a number of years.

"I am enjoying life at the moment and I would never rule out going to Munster again. We will see what happens in the next year or so but for now I am still enjoying life over here."

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