Zebo, 27, may have been an integral part of the Ireland side which defeated the All Blacks last November in Chicago but having announced on Monday his decision to leave Munster and slide out from under the IRFU’s protective blanket for pastures new, the Corkman had
appeared to bring an end to his Test career for the duration of his time in France. Omission from the Ireland squad announced yesterday for next month’s Guinness Series Tests against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina would mean, it seems, that the covers have been removed with immediate effect.
Zebo failed to make head coach Schmidt’s 38-man squad, deemed surplus to requirements from a selection featuring seven back-three players including uncapped duo Adam Byrne of Leinster and the omitted star’s provincial team-mate Darren Sweetnam.
Earlier yesterday, Ireland and Lions back-rower Sean O’Brien suggested Zebo was too talented to ignore, telling RTÉ Radio 1’s Today with Sean O’Rourke: “Someone like Zeebs is so talented, he has that bit of X-factor. I still think he’ll definitely be called upon, in my eyes.”
The message from Schmidt, however, was clear for a player selected by Munster boss Rassie Erasmus yesterday for tonight’s PRO14 derby at Connacht: Ireland have to move on, there’s a World Cup to prepare for and you are no longer part of the plan.
Galway’s Sportground will tonight conjure up a midfield showdown between the two other uncapped players in Schmidt’s squad when Munster’s outside centre Chris Farrell goes head to head with Bundee Aki, called into the squad at the first opportunity following the New Zealander’s qualification after three years of Irish residency in Connacht.
With Garry Ringrose and Jared Payne not considered due to injury, Aki’s inclusion opens the possibility of a reunion in midfield with Robbie Henshaw, his centre partner in the PRO12-title-winning season of 2015-16.
Former Connacht lock Michael Swift said he always believed the 27-year-old was destined for an international call-up from the time he arrived at the Sportsground the season before. “Joe Schmidt was always making the effort to go to Connacht and be involved with the province. He was having conversations with Bundee and the call-up was always coming,” Swift said.
Farrell’s inclusion comes following his decision to quit France during the summer and return to Ireland from Grenoble. With Payne yet to play for Ulster this season having withdrawn from the summer’s Lions tour suffering from migraines and Rob Kearney only just set to return this weekend for Leinster following a hamstring injury sustained in early September, it would have been no surprise to see Zebo in the Ireland camp this week, ready to return to the full back’s jersey. Yet Kearney was included among the 17 backs selected by Schmidt and will face a battle with club-mate Joey Carbery and Munster’s Andrew Conway, two players up and running at full-back and both in-form.
Dave Kearney and Keith Earls provide experience in the back three while Jacob Stockdale retains his place in the squad following a try-scoring Test debut against the United States this summer and a second cap on the wing against Japan.
Sweetnam’s call-up marks another step on the 24-year-old’s journey from the Cork Senior hurling panel in 2012, after which he decided to focus on professional rugby and it comes with an endorsement from Munster director of rugby Erasmus who on Monday said of the wing’s international prospects: “I think he’s definitely ready for that but it depends who’s he competing with.”
Erasmus said on Monday that he hoped to see at least eight Munster players named in Schmidt’s squad but will instead say goodbye to 11 after tonight’s Connacht game while he will welcome back Zebo to training on Monday.
There will be selections made by Schmidt yesterday met with surprise in all four provinces. Leinster hooker Sean Cronin, for so long Rory Best’s rival for the number two jersey, loses out to club-mate James Tracy and Ulster’s Rob Herring, while Connacht full-back Tiernan O’Halloran can consider himself unlucky not to make the Ireland squad after a great start to the campaign.
Ireland’s first opponents South Africa, who visit Aviva Stadium on Saturday, November 11, are optimistic that captain Eben Eztebeth will be fit for the Springboks’ tour opener in Dublin.
The lock and fly-half Handre Pollard sustained concussions in the Rugby Championship game against New Zealand three weeks ago and are completing their return to play protocols while Etzebeth also twisted his ankle in during a training session, suffering a low-grade ligament injury.
Boks’ head coach Allister Coetzee will name his 34-man touring squad on Sunday.