'That guy is sitting it out and he should be going to the World Cup' - Luke Fitzgerald on Simon Zebo
Ex-Ireland international Luke Fitzgerald has once again questioned the wisdom of the IRFU and Joe Schmidt for their exclusion of Racing 92's Simon Zebo from the Ireland set-up in the wake of the team's alarming 2019.
Zebo has found himself out in the cold since his move from Munster to Paris just before the 2017 autumn internationals with the IRFU holding firm on their preference for home-based players despite breaking that protocol during Johnny Sexton's spell with the same club in France.
The winger's last meaningful action for Ireland came during the 2017 Six Nations, which also saw the bulk of the few occasions when Leinster's Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose made up the centre pairing. Since then, a mixture of injury and the eligibility of Connacht's Bundi Aki has restricted the time the Leinster pair have spent on the international pitch together with the 2018 Melbourne test against Australia the only time both have started since.
But Fitzgerald also believes that combination should be Schmidt's go-to for the World Cup as he tried to arrest what has become an alarming slide over the last nine months. And it's a pairing he feels must be tried during the upcoming double-header against Wales which will complete Ireland's World Cup warm-up.
"In my head, it's still Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose in the centre. I thought that was quite clear but we hadn't got them together fitness-wise," said Fitzgerald on this week's The Left Wing, Independent.ie's rugby podcast in association with Aldi.
"For whatever reason Robbie seems to be constrained in Irish camp and doesn't use his ball-handling ability like he does in Leinster. Now there's probably less time in international rugby but leaving that aside, it's an area where the two of those guys need to take pressure off Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray.
"If one of those guys goes down, Ireland are picking and going or they're passing. It's one-out rugby. You need to have someone else there.
"You look at Simon Zebo. That guy is sitting it out and he should be going to the World Cup. It's too late to be coming up with this conservation but the point is we don't have someone to take the pressure off and to get the ball into the outside channels.
"It's a problem for us that we end up having to make all our gains in a tight space. If you're marking Ireland, you play like Saracens defend. They're just going to try and bully it through and the creativity doesn't look like it's there at the moment.
The experience that Henshaw has at full-back is also a factor for Fitzgerlad and he believes that history gives his former term-mate an edge at a time when Ireland are desperately seeking one.
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"Robbie Henshaw makes a big difference in defence as well. He's a brilliant defender, particularly if you're coming hard off the line like Andy Farrell wants his teams to. He just keeps coming forward He gets his angles right really well," the 2009 Lion continued.
"Even at times when he's not going to get there, he drags up the outside defenders. It's hard to explain unless you've been in a defence that comes hard up the line.
"You saw Stockdale and Conway last week and how exposed they looked because there was a mismatch in size and there wasn't pace off the line. Robbie makes a massive difference there.
"Trust me from having played with the guy, he makes it so much easier for you because he keeps on coming. It sounds like a simple thing but it's really hard to do and in that defence, it's absolutely key. He could have a massive impact in there."
Fitzgerald also had encouraging words for Henshaw's team-mate in the Leinster centre who he believes needs to take inspiration from his predecessor at club and international level to realise his full potential.
"I still like Garry Ringrose," he concluded.
"He's a bit more deceptive. His tackling was poor at the weekend but it's usually brilliant. I think he has the handling ability to make an impact on the game but just hasn't been using it.
"That's going to be really important because otherwise if I was the opposition looking at Garry Ringrose I'd be saying ‘just tackle and he's going to come off his right foot all day'. For me, he should have more to his game.
"O'Driscoll had more to his game, he was able to put other people away as well which created space for him. That's the blueprint for Ringrose.
"For me, it's always been those two guys but they just haven't played together."