Ruaidhri O'Connor: Joe Schmidt’s comments on Simon Zebo's omission don’t appear to stack up with reality
Sometimes Joe Schmidt doesn't make life easy for himself.
Yesterday, he was asked why Simon Zebo had not been selected for the Ireland squad for the Six Nations and he chose to offer a stinging criticism of the Munster full-back's form - in particular his performance against Racing 92 in Paris two weeks ago.
While he is known for his cutting analysis behind the scenes, the head coach does not usually offer strong opinions on players in public which made yesterday's comments all the more surprising. And judging by the scathing reaction from fans on social media yesterday, many still choose to believe that Zebo is out of the Ireland picture because of his impending move to Racing 92.
If Schmidt had simply used that as his reasoning, most people would understand. It may be disappointing that one of the most talented and entertaining players that this country has produced in recent years is not considered for international rugby, but it is understandable that Schmidt and the IRFU want to reward those who commit to the cause by making an example of those who don't.
Schmidt has strong options in the back-three, players who are committed to the cause and he is probably right to pick them over someone who is unlikely to be considered for the World Cup.
However, if form is the sole criterion on which Zebo was left out then one wonders if the same standard is being applied to others.
Take Jacob Stockdale for example. The Ulster winger had a fine November series but endured a torrid evening in the heavy defeat to Leinster yet he survived the cut when Schmidt made his selection last week.
And rightly so - the idea that a player would be jettisoned on the back of one bad game is ludicrous.
Although Schmidt said at yesterday's briefing that "honestly, I just try to be honest" when dealing with the media, there was a sense that he wasn't telling the full tale when it came to Zebo who was lauded by his provincial coach Johann van Graan for his efforts last Sunday.
It would be no surprise if it were to emerge in the fullness of time that Schmidt was unimpressed by Zebo's public utterances in recent times.
In December, he said: "Joe said the door wasn't closed so if he's telling the truth and I'm playing well in the Six Nations then I might have a chance to get in there".
And then, in the build-up to the Racing game, Zebo told 'L'équipe' that he struggled within the rigidity of Schmidt's game-plan.
Those quotes, coupled with Zebo's increasingly elaborate and rather un-Schmidtesque post-try celebrations, gave the impression of a man who knew that he wouldn't be considered for the spring despite the public assurances to the contrary.
Schmidt's relationship with the Munster star has never been smooth.
Zebo had some trouble with injuries throughout the New Zealander's first year in charge, but while that was the main reason given for his consistent omission it flew in the face of Zebo's form.
Schmidt finally picked him for the first Test of the 2014 summer tour of Argentina.
Afterwards, a journalist asked what he had made of Zebo's performance. Schmidt threw him a look that cut him in two, paused, and said: "Yeah, Simon was alright".
It was one of the few times since he arrived on these shores that the coach allowed his veneer to slip and it gave a window into his real thoughts.
In the following season, Zebo earned more trust within the set-up and was part of the team that won the 2015 Six Nations but at the subsequent World Cup he was left out of the pivotal games against France and Argentina despite showing strong form earlier in the tournament.
Since then, he has been a regular in the side and appeared to have won Schmidt over - with his leading role in the win over New Zealand in Chicago appearing to help his case.
And yet, when contract time rolled around, Zebo wasn't offered a central contract. He'd always wanted to live and work in France and so when Racing came in with a lucrative offer he jumped at the chance.
He knew he was sacrificing his Ireland chances and despite the fact that he remains an IRFU employee, it appears clear that his international career is over.
And yet, the coach felt the need to offer form as the reason behind his omission yesterday.
"He is in consideration like anyone else who's currently playing in Ireland," Schmidt said.
"We felt Jordan (Larmour) was probably playing at a level that was appropriate to select him.
"Simon is great value to have in the squad and he's got an irresistible charm about him, he's always smiling and his positivity is great. But by his own standards, he didn't have a great day in Paris (against Racing) a couple of weeks ago.
"There was some wayward passing, some turnovers that he'd look back at and be frustrated with himself. It's crucial at the time of selection that we know guys are in good form. There's a bit of time during the Six Nations with the PRO14 games that he can still strike a claim."
In truth, Zebo could score a record number of tries in the PRO14 games during the Six Nations and the call-up still wouldn't come. He made his bed by moving to Racing and now he must lie in it.
Schmidt should just admit as much and let the player move on.
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