Donal Lenihan: Simon Zebo exit a blow but it won’t spark French exodus

Donal Lenihan believes Irish rugby fans will need to get used to losing players like Simon Zebo but does not expect an “exodus” to wealthy French clubs.

Zebo, 27, yesterday announced his intention to leave Munster when his contract is up at the end of the season, with Racing 92 at the top of the queue for the full-back.

The Cork man is expected to double his salary when he moves to Paris, but is likely to cut short his international career, with Joe Schmidt’s policy of only selecting home-based players set to continue despite the value of Zebo as a backline option.

“I’m disappointed from a Munster perspective, but I can understand from Simon’s point of view,” said Lenihan.

“He’s been through this contractual scenario before and he renewed a contract two years ago, and at the time he was still on a provincial contract, rather than an international contract, and there’s a significant difference from a monetary point of view there.

“I understand he was offered an international contract this stage from the IRFU, but the ground rules keep changing... the amount of money washing around in the French game now, due primarily to a huge increase in their TV deal from next year onwards, means the clubs are in a better position to offer bigger money.

“Simon has two kids, he’s 27 years of age, this is something we have to get used to. While the IRFU have been very proactive in the past, and been able to hold on to our best players, the terms on offer now are so great, they have to have a limit somewhere and they haven’t been able to match what was offered.”

Munster lost Donnacha Ryan to Racing 92 in the summer, four years after Leinster saw Johnny Sexton make the same move.

But the mixed experience of Leinster’s No10 might be more instructive in years to come, according to Irish Examiner columnist Lenihan.

“There’ll be certain players who will be attractive to the French clubs for obvious reasons, but I don’t see a massive exodus from Ireland,” he said.

“You look at the big names who have gone in the past; Sexton went to Racing for two years, it didn’t work out particularly well for him, Ian Madigan went to Bordeaux but got out of his contract after a year to go to Bristol, so the examples of those show it doesn’t work out for everyone.”

Lenihan accepts Zebo, who has French blood in his family, was always likely to leave, but is surprised by the timing, coming two years out from a World Cup.

“It now raises the question: Is he giving up his international career,” asked Lenihan. “Joe Schmidt has made it very clear that, all things being equal, he will pick home-based players.

“Sexton was the only one that Schmidt picked having gone abroad, so Simon is giving up a lot. He established himself for all the recent internationals as Ireland’s full-back. You would imagine he’d be starting the November internationals, but whether this decision affects Joe’s selections for the rest of the season remains to be seen.

“Certainly from next year on it looks like he’s giving up his international career, which I think is a huge pity. But it’s a short career, players have a limited window in which to set themselves up, and unfortunately with the money that is there in France now, it is a problem and we’re going to see it happen again.”

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