Ireland head coach Schmidt and IRFU performance director David Nucifora have repeatedly stated that players who earn their keep under the governing body’s welfare programme at one of the four provinces will be favoured for national team selection over those who choose to play overseas.
Zebo, 27, will be on the outside looking in from next summer, apparently prepared to put his Test career on hold during his Top14 adventure and potentially sacrificing a place in Ireland’s 2019 World Cup squad. Yet his immediate future in green is intriguing. Does Schmidt make the most of the Munster full-back/wing’s considerable talents while he has them at his disposal, or does he pull the plug now and start planning without him?
Zebo remains available for another eight Tests: Next month’s international block and the 2018 Six Nations. Yet the Test windows between then and Japan 2019 are narrowing, with a three-Test series against the Wallabies in Australia next June, the 2018 November Tests, and 2019 Six Nations providing Schmidt with just 11 Tests to hone his squad ahead of the World Cup warm-up games that summer.
The Ireland boss does not wish to revisit the anguish of the 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat, when Argentina exposed the frailties of an inexperienced, injury-hit side and there are full-back deficits currently, with Rob Kearney only set to make a comeback from his latest hamstring issues this Saturday for Leinster against Ulster, for whom Jared Payne is still under wraps since withdrawing from the Lions tour with migraines. Leinster have relied on fly-half Joey Carbery at full-back in Kearney’s absence while Andrew Conway has impressed in the position for Munster, but Zebo could also benefit.
The absences of Payne and Garry Ringrose (shoulder) mean Robbie Henshaw needs a new midfield partner and Schmidt now has the services of newly-qualified Bundee Aki to call on, with the potential of reuniting the westerners’ Pro12-winning partnership of 2015-16. An alternative could be to switch Henshaw to outside centre, bringing in the likes of Ulster’s in-form Stuart McCloskey or Munster’s Rory Scannell for further exposure.
There are also vacancies in the forwards, with hooker Niall Scannell and back-rowers Josh van der Flier and Jamie Heaslip ruled out through injury, the latter set to miss his first autumn series since 2007.