ew players in Irish rugby divide opinion as much as Simon Zebo.
His laid-back nature, refreshing smile, and pursuit of the spectacular over the mundane don’t always find favour.
Even Joe Schmidt took time to be convinced. To be fair, the Ireland coach has moulded Zebo into a far more rounded performer under his watch and, for this, he has reason to be grateful to his national coach.
Zebo is box office. The Munster faithful adore him, especially the kids, and with good reason. He is a breath of fresh air. That is why confirmation of his departure has been greeted with such disappointment and regret in Munster.
Was I surprised he made the decision to uproot his young family and decamp to France? Not in the slightest. Simon is 27 years of age, has two young kids and his partner to cater for. With injury an ever-increasing threat in a game that grows in intensity and physicality by the hour, players have a short window to maximise their earning capacity.
If the best players from New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa have no hesitation in travelling halfway across the world, leaving family and friends behind to embrace a different culture, why are we surprised that one of our own would choose to maximise his earning capacity less than a two-hour flight from his front door?
The money floating around in the English game has increased dramatically while the finances available to the French clubs will reach unprecedented levels from the outset of the 2019/20 season due to a new television deal for Top 14 coverage that sees Canal+ increase their annual payment from a current level of €71m to €97m.
In a week that attracted a lot of comment due to the fact that a New Zealander in Bundee Aki, who transported his family from Hamilton, New Zealand to Galway, primarily for financial gain, was included in the Irish squad while a player born and bred in Cork was excluded for doing something similar just doesn’t sit easily with me.
Let me be absolutely clear on the fact that, if I was in Joe Schmidt’s shoes, I too would pick Aki because, even though I detest the three-year residency rule and welcome the fact it is being extended to five years from 2018, his form in the absence of Garry Ringrose dictates selection and he is eligible under World Rugby’s international regulations.
I would also pick Simon Zebo for those exact same reasons. Zebo is running brilliant lines from full-back at present and the prospect of him feeding off the sumptuous hands displayed by Aki against Munster last Friday night has the capacity to add a new dimension to Ireland’s attacking play.
I fully understand the reasoning behind the IRFU’s policy to favour home-based players over those plying their trade overseas. In fact as Irish manager I, along with Warren Gatland as head coach, implemented a similar policy in 1998 of favouring home-based players in certain circumstances in an effort to attract those who fled to England after the game turned professional, to return home.
Thankfully that policy, along with the very decent package offered by the IRFU, enticed most of the players back to their provinces. It still didn’t prevent the likes of Keith Wood, who was playing for Harlequins at the time, from being selected as he was clearly the best hooker available to us.
Likewise, despite all the impediments, Johnny Sexton was consistently picked by Schmidt during his time with Racing. Zebo is an employee of the IRFU until next June and if his form dictates selection, which I believe it does, then he should be picked.
If by going to France, the rigours of the Top 14 dictate that his form deteriorates, then he shouldn’t be picked. If it’s a 50/50 call or even a 40/60 one then, as Gatland and I did a number of years ago, opt for the home-based player. If not, pick the outstanding candidate.
f the 2015 World Cup taught us anything, it is that we need a depth of top-quality players in every position to make it to the last four, something no Irish side has yet achieved. I pose the question now, if Zebo’s game continues to prosper and he is playing out of his skin in two years’ time, why wouldn’t you bring him to the 2019 event in Japan?
Apart altogether from his ability as a player, Zebo is one of those infectious characters who helps to light up a dressing room. Ireland captain Rory Best said as much when asked about the impact of his departure and consequent exile from the national squad. “He’s a big loss because, as much as his brilliance with ball in hand, characters like him are hard to come by,” said the Irish captain.
Unfortunately in the regimented and cloned pathway that increasingly characterise the development of entrants to the professional game, individuality is becoming increasingly rare.
Zebo is a rogue. Many years ago, in my capacity as chairman of the Munster academy, I had reason to call the young maverick in front of a disciplinary panel as he was acting the maggot a bit too frequently.
Suffice to say he got two full barrels in a decent dressing down. Had Noel Murphy or Tom Kiernan delivered a similar bollocking to a young Donal Lenihan, I wouldn’t have opened my mouth for weeks.
Hours later, I attended a Cork Constitution victory dinner to celebrate the club’s achievement in winning the All-Ireland League that season.
Zebo was a rising star in that squad.
On entering the bar of the Rochestown Park Hotel, one of the first people I bumped into was the bold Simon. He greeted me with a smile and one of the warmest high five’s I’ve ever received. I decided there and then that this guy was different and that, rather than attempt to curb his effervescent nature, it should be nurtured and encouraged.
Zebo offers a point of difference that few others coming through the schools and academy system seek to explore. It is the reason, I suspect, why he has always entertained the prospect of sampling pastures new. Given his background and fluency in the French language, it’s no surprise that he has chosen to dip his toe in the Top 14.
While I will miss his ability to light up the mundane on a cold winter’s evening at a Guinness PRO14 outing, I will have even greater reason to follow his exploits in the Top 14 and European competition.
Thomond Park has lost a sprinkling of gold dust. Hopefully he will return home some day with even more magic to share. I wish him well.