Joe Schmidt has suggested Simon Zebo was omitted from Ireland’s Six Nations due to poor form and that he lost out on a place to Leinster’s uncapped rising star Jordan Larmour, writes Simon Lewis.
The Munster full-back, who will leave Ireland at the end of the season to join French side Racing 92, was overlooked by the national team head coach for the second international window when Schmidt named his squad for the first two games of the championship, which begins in Paris against France on February 3.
Zebo’s omission was presumed to be because of his decision to step outside of the IRFU player welfare programme from next season, though comments attributed to him in a French newspaper that he preferred playing for Munster rather than in “rigid structures” can hardly have endeared him to the national management.
Asked at Wednesday’s tournament launch in London, Schmidt said he believed the Cork player had not had a good game in the Champions Cup round five loss at Racing, three days before the 36-man squad was unveiled.
“He is in consideration like anyone else who’s currently playing in Ireland. I answered a question earlier about the balance we’ve got in our back three and we felt that Jordan was probably playing at a level that was appropriate to select him,” Schmidt said.
“I think 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 92) 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.”
Zebo put in an excellent performance in the round six pool finale win over Castres last Sunday in Limerick, earning the praise of Munster head coach Johann van Graan, who called his full-back “a unique talent”.
Yet Schmidt has backed academy back-three star Larmour, 20, to take the step up to Test rugby after a superb start to his rookie season in the senior Leinster team.
“I saw him when he was fresh out of St. Andrew’s College and he’s been into our camp before - the first time was probably 16 months ago during the November series.
“So we’ve spent a bit of time having Jordan in and to get him in permanently now is to potentially accelerate his progress into the matchday squad and into, potentially, a starting 15.
“The things that we’ve seen in Jordan, obviously the most visible things are his ability to accelerate, to change direction, but he’s a skilful young man as well. He’s effective in the air, his passing skills are good, he fully commits to the physical aspects of the game as well.
“He’s a really good kid, Jordan, so that’s always a compelling factor as well."
Schmidt also explained his decision not to call in Scarlets’ Munster-bound second row Tadhg Beirne, despite him moving back to Ireland next season.
“It’s a complex one when they’re playing away from Ireland. He’s committed to coming back to Munster next year, which is super and we had a conversation at the start of the season about that happening.
“We had a really good conversation recently too. I think the problem with Tadhg is that with (World Rugby’s) Regulation 9, it’s a camp week this week, but that’s only a three-day camp week. So if we take him to Spain, we’re required to make him back available to Scarlets.
“He’s played around 1350 minutes already this season - our players don’t usually play that much. Now, I had a great chat with (Scarlets boss) Wayne Pivac and they’ve had injuries to Jake Ball and Lewis Rawlins, so that happens in squads sometimes.
"Because he’s so resilient and because he’s played so well - I thought he was huge in the last two games and in the Toulon game particularly - but he’s going to come in and visit us, and we’ll get to catch up again.
"I’ve known Tadhg since he was in Leinster and I think he’s a really committed young man as well. I wouldn’t rule him out completely, but it is complicated.
"It also means that during the Six Nations, [we would have that] backwards and forwards. So if we have those camp weeks or regeneration weeks, where players get a bit of a rest, he’s got to go back and be available to play for Scarlets.
"That intermittent involvement with the squad, particularly when it’s your first involvement, is probably one of the things that just tipped the balance away from him.”
Schmidt referred to the good form of Irish-based locks James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane.
“When you stack that up and you’ve still got guys like Kieran Treadwell and Billy Holland, who are working hard and playing well in Ireland, you’re always trying to get that balance right about selecting Tadhg with that intermittent involvement and with those high game minutes.
“It’s just a little bit complicated but that complication will cease at the end of the season and that may be an opportunity.”