Simon Zebo back in picture for Toulouse

Toulouse’s long-standing admiration for Munster’s Simon Zebo has resurfaced with the French Top 14 club again linked with a move for the Ireland star.
Simon Zebo back in picture for Toulouse

Zebo, 25, returned to his native province’s colours last weekend following Ireland’s World Cup campaign in which he impressed at full-back against Romania and Italy but was overlooked for the Pool D finale against France and the quarter-final with Argentina which marked the end of the road for Joe Schmidt’s squad.

And with the World Cup over less than 48 hours, the European transfer rumour mill has cranked up for another season with wing/full-back Zebo the focus as his current three-year deal comes to an end next June.

Speculation has regularly linked Zebo and Toulouse, with the Corkman not ruling out a move to the Top 14 at some stage in his career.

With negotiations due to start on a new IRFU deal, it has sparked again in France. Munster maintained a diplomatic silence yesterday, refusing to comment on transfer speculation.

Yet in the wake of this latest Zebo link to Toulouse and the premature retirement last week of Felix Jones, they will be under pressure to nail down their other back three assets with Keith Earls and Andrew Conway also out of contract next June.

Others set for negotiation are Conor Murray, Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander, James Cronin and Duncan Casey with head coach Anthony Foley loathe to let further key squad members follow Paul O’Connell out the door.

The former Ireland captain has issues of his own following a serious hamstring injury and yesterday he revealed he could be sidelined for up to eight months, leaving him facing the biggest challenge of his career to make a telling contribution at Toulon.

The 36-year-old left Munster after 14 seasons to join the three-time European champions on a two-year deal and could miss the majority of his first Top 14 season as he rehabilitates the hamstring torn from the bone during the World Cup clash with France.

Having undergone successful surgery two weeks ago, O’Connell said it could be anywhere between four and eight months before he makes his Toulon debut. But having committed to the French club and family life on the Mediterranean, the lock is determined not to see out his career on the sidelines.

“It’s naive to think that its going to be plain sailing,” O’Connell said at a smart technology launch for energy company Pinergy. “I’m heading into probably the biggest challenge of my career in terms of trying to rehab a very serious injury at 36 and trying to rehab it somewhere I’m not very familiar with.

"So that’s going to be the big focus. If I don’t do that right and don’t train probably harder than I’ve ever trained the last few years of my career could end up being a disappointment.

“It was always going to be a challenge to make an impression at 36... now it’s going to be even more difficult.”

O’Connell was forced to watch from the stands in Cardiff alongside fellow casualties Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony as Ireland crashed out of the World Cup in a quarter-final humbling by Argentina.

He insisted there were no major fixes needed but said the premature exit represented a missed opportunity to win hearts and minds of future generations of Irish athletes who gravitate towards Gaelic games.

“The shame of it is that we didn’t make a semi-final and possibly go further because I even see it on my road at home with my son and all his friends, they’re rugby mad now after the World Cup.

“Now, the soccer is back on and they’re beginning to play a little bit more soccer and soon it’s going to be hurling. People talk about New Zealand and their skill level and where they’re at, but the fact is to me that they are the Kilkenny of world rugby.

“A New Zealander has probably accumulated hundreds, maybe even thousands more hours of rugby than an Irish kid has and that’s why I’m disappointed we didn’t make the semi-finals because we probably would have changed a little bit of that and probably I just think it’s part of New Zealand’s culture.

“If rugby was our number one sport then Henry Shefflin would be playing rugby, he’d be playing first centre. The best brains in hurling would be in rugby.

“You’d have Brian Cody involved, and that’s what they have in New Zealand, and that’s what we don’t have up here and for everyone involved in rugby that’s the challenge, to try and make this game you want to see kids walking down the road holding a rugby ball.

"A kid growing up, I don’t think his main goal in life in Kilkenny is to play for Ireland in rugby, it’s to win an All-Ireland for Kilkenny. So it’s a shame we let that shot go at changing people’s attitudes.... we could have taken a big step in this World Cup and that’s a shame.”

Meanwhile, at Leinster, fears Sexton and fellow Ireland back Luke Fitzgerald had picked up new injuries in the Pro12 win at Treviso on Sunday were dismissed by head coach Leo Cullen yesterday, who said Fitzgerald was the only doubt to face Scarlets this Friday.

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