Dream of Top 14 move still burns brightly for Munster rugby star Simon Zebo

He can’t say exactly when or where it will come to pass but Simon Zebo is definitive about the fact that he will sever his link with Munster at some point before he retires and try his hand with a club in France.
Dream of Top 14 move still burns brightly for Munster rugby star Simon Zebo

Swapping life with the provinces for a contract on the continent isn’t the hottest ticket in town right now given Jonathan Sexton’s past difficulties at Racing 92 and Ian Madigan’s struggles at Bordeaux-Begles.

Add to that Marty Moore who has literally found himself sent to Coventry since a switch to Wasps.

Zebo hasn’t let any of that dissuade him.

Heavily linked with Pau just over a year ago, there was talk too at the time of interest from Stade Francais and Toulouse until the Cork man agreed to add another two years onto his commitment with Munster. He will be 29 by the time that expires in 2018.

It may not be then but he will make for France at some point.

“Ah yeah, at some stage I will definitely, (go to France). It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when. I’ll play Pro D2 if I have to. I have a lot of French family over in France. I love the lifestyle over there and playing rugby over there at some point in my life would be something I would like to experience.

“It’s not many jobs (that) you get the opportunity to change to a different country.

“But, at the moment, I’m very happy playing with Munster and Ireland. We have a big challenge ahead of ourselves with these French boys.”

Zebo has said most of this before. The family connection, through his Martinique-born French athlete father, Arthur, is well-known and the expectation is that some of his Gallic relatives will make the trip for tomorrow’s Six Nations game in Dublin.

What is new is the clarity of his declaration this time. No ifs, no maybes. Plans go awry, of course. People change. Jamie Heaslip has spoken many times about how his love of travel could persuade him to open a new chapter with a side in Europe, or even the southern hemisphere, but he is 33 now and signed on through to the 2019 World Cup.

France isn’t exactly a rugby paradise either.

The money may be hard to turn down but the attritional nature of the Top 14 isn’t easy on the eye or, one imagines, the body of a player approaching, or in, their thirties.

A wing/full-back whose business is creativity would want to choose his lodgings especially carefully. “It probably depends on which club you go to. You could be lucky or unlucky with the style of rugby you get. It’s a different lifestyle, a different experience. Rugby is such a short career and I love Munster so much but at the same time, at some stage......

“I could be 40 before I decide to go. You never know.”

But anyway, to more pressing concerns.

It’s a long time since a young Simon Zebo cheered for France and looked on admirably from afar at Yannick Jauzion and Vincent Clerc. Both played under Guy Noves at Toulouse and Zebo has always been a fan of how the current France coach has sought to combine that sort of flair with force.

That this is a special fixture for him isn’t in doubt and yet it’s only the second time in 31 Test appearances that will get to line up against ‘les Bleus’. The only other opportunity was two years ago when Jonathan Sexton returned from a 12-week concussion absence and Ireland won 18-11 in Dublin.

If that’s a curious stat then another - one mentioned in passing in these pages earlier in the championship - was pointed out to him last week. Namely, the fact that he hasn’t scored a try in the Six Nations since claiming his first, against Wales in Cardiff, four years ago.

“You’re going to make me insecure about it now,” he joked.

It’s an oddity given his status as Munster’s record try scorer and an international highlights reel that includes five-pointers against New Zealand and Australia but the fact is that his record of one touch down every 3.75 games falls well short of the stats of Tommy Bowe or Keith Earls.

“I try and have more of an impact on play up here, as opposed to when I’m in Munster. The play would more naturally come to me and I’d be looked for a bit more, whereas up here I’d need to go looking for it a bit more. I find myself in first receiver, trying to make try assists, rather than dotting down tries.”

A beautifully weighted pass against Italy in Rome that sent CJ Stander over for the flanker’s first try was just the latest example of a player who can hurt teams in a number of ways.

The dynamic changes this week. Not just because France are a sight better than the Italians but because Sexton makes another return from injury and one which sees Paddy Jackson slip down the queue onto the replacements’ bench.

Zebo, understandably, felt the need has to balance praise of one ten with more of the same for the other. One opts for a more free-flowing game, he explained, the other sees different opportunities in different spaces but the worth of a fit and on-form Sexton is difficult to overplay.

“He’s a great player. He does demand a certain standard in training and things like that but that’s not taking anything from Paddy. He’s a different personality who can be equally effective on the pitch on his day.

“There’s a tough battle for ten at the moment but Johnny’s been working on his fitness and he gets his opportunity this week. Paddy’s definitely been pushing him hard. We’ve seen in the past how good Johnny can be, the value he brings to the team, so he’ll have to do the same this weekend.”

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