Luke Fitzgerald says Simon Zebo's personality clash with Joe Schmidt 'really hurt the team'
Luke Fitzgerald has opened up on the exiled Simon Zebo’s relationship with ex-Ireland boss Joe Schmidt and hinted that there was more behind the Racing 92 wing’s absence from the Ireland set-up than simply his move abroad.
Despite still playing for Munster in 2017/18, Zebo was cut from the Ireland squad by Schmidt as soon as his move to the French club was announced.
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The oft-cited reason given was that IRFU were simply enforcing their unwritten rule about players playing outside the four provinces not being selected for international duty.
Therefore, with Zebo certain to be unavailable for the World Cup, the logical decision was not to consider him before then. And that decision seemed to be vindicated with Ireland's dream season of 2018.
However, as that dream of 2018 turned into 2019's nightmare, the fact that a clear exception was made during Johnny Sexton’s two-year spell with the same club Zebo now plies his trade with was pointed to, as Ireland missed the sort of panache that Zebo offers.
Fitzgerald believes that other factors were in play in relation to the Corkman's non-consideration.
"Zeebs and Joe don’t get on. And Zeebs is a guy I would look at and say he’s got so much more potential if he would just open his mind to getting involved in other parts of the game and trying to improve other parts of his game," the ex-Ireland man told The Left Wing, Independent,ie’s rugby podcast in association with Aldi.
"I would always think he was a guy who could be so much better because he doesn’t train hard, he doesn’t like going to the gym so Joe would hate that. That was always going to be a challenge for him.
"Joe would look at Simon and say why don’t you just eat properly and train properly because you could be so much better. And Zebo would be saying look at my try record for Munster, it speaks for itself. Look at how good I am all the time for whatever team I play in.
"There’s a clash of personalities there, he’s just a free spirit."
Zebo himself went on the record yesterday in his Paddy Power column about his desire to return and highlighted his positive relationship with new Ireland manager, Andy Farrell, sparking speculation about a potential comeback.
"I'd definitely pick up the phone to Andy if I got a call," said the 35-times-capped Zebo.
"As for where I stand now Joe Schmidt has departed, I haven't been in contact with anyone in the Irish set-up really. If something happens in the future, great. If it doesn't, it's not the end of the world.
"But I have a very good relationship with Andy. He might have a different view on players playing abroad than Joe and, if he decides to give me a call, I would of course look at coming back and being available."
And from Fitzgerald’s perspective, while he doesn’t believe the overall policy is likely to change, the precedent made by Sexton’s case makes a compelling argument for Zebo’s return.
"(Not being there) hurt Zebo and it really hurt the team,” he concluded.
"He would have been one hundred per cent starting. The worst part for him is while he’s not a good trainer, he’s actually a brilliant player.
"He's great under the high ball, he's an excellent kicker, he's got lovely hands. That third receiver that Ireland need, he could be that guy for them.
"At this point in time, he could even be as important as Johnny was."