Joe Schmidt stung by Sexton’s Paris pain but door still open for Zebo

Johnny Sexton has never had the same “resilience” since his stint in France and that’s why Ireland choose not to select overseas-based players, according to Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.

Ireland boss Schmidt insisted the IRFU has “no policy” when it comes to omitting overseas-based stars from Test action.

Schmidt admitted Ireland will aim to ignore players plying their club trade abroad where possible, after Simon Zebo signed a deal to join Racing 92 for next season.

But he insists the door has not shut on Zebo’s Test career, despite the Munster star’s decision to move to France at the end of the season.

Lions fly-half Sexton remains Ireland’s only star to continue Test action while based abroad, but Schmidt believes his injury-hit two-year stint at Racing continues to impact his career even now.

Asked to clarify the IRFU stance on overseas-based players, Schmidt replied: “There is no policy, there is only an intention from the IRFU to best protect the provinces and the local game.

“We believe that the best way to do that is to select from within Ireland.

“There’s one player (Sexton) who went to Racing and was played for the first 12 games in the season, and I’m not sure he’s ever had the same resilience since then.

“I think it’s pretty self evident: Johnny (Sexton) hasn’t played 12 games in a row since then and that’s because you pick up the wear and tear and it’s hard then to get that back.

“We’re looking to add to the longevity of our players.”

Zebo, 27, last week announced his intention to quit his home province for a Top14 club, with a deal being finalised with Racing 92 in Paris, and he was subsequently omitted from Schmidt’s Ireland squad for this month’s Guinness Series of Tests against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina.

It appeared the writing was on the wall for the gifted full-back and that his international career would be on hold at 35 caps for the duration of his time away from Ireland, yet Schmidt said he had told Zebo that while he was moving himself to the “periphery” of the selection pecking order by leaving the protection of the IRFU’s player welfare programme, good form would always keep him on the head coach’s radar as it did others such as former Leinster men, Wasps prop Marty Moore and Bristol fly-half Ian Madigan.

“As I said to Simon, keep playing really well,” Schmidt said before the Rugby Writers of Ireland awards dinner.

“I’ve stayed in touch with Marty Moore. I’ve stayed in touch with Ian Madigan. But, in the interim, there have been some players that have stepped up. Are there any complaints about Tadhg Furlong replacing Marty Moore? Are there any complaints about Joey Carbery coming on and playing with aplomb for the last 20 minutes against the All Blacks in Chicago?

“We always look historically at what someone has done for the team and I would be incredibly impressed by what Simon has done for Irish rugby. But, we have to be as forward-thinking as we can.

“We’ve got to try to future-proof the next two, the next six years, because we’re still trying to fight that zenith that still could be the Rugby World Cup here (in 2023).

“We want to make sure that we retain as many players as we can.”

Schmidt admitted Sexton was selected in exceptional circumstances given the player was his trusted playmaker.

“I was new into the job. To set a rugby team up in the space of a week is an incredibly difficult job. To have a thought process that is very similar to the guy that was running the team was, as much as anything, a real convenience to me going into a new job. That was a part of Johnny’s selection. He has also proven to be, over the last two Lions tours, the starting player in a Lions Test match.

“Zeebs has been great for us but he hasn’t reached the same level of selection, in those terms. I guess the risk is a really high-profile player does go and then you’ve got to make a decision. Since Johnny left, Simon would be as high-profile as anyone has been.

“That’s why it is tough for us and it’s tough for people to accept. I do accept that people are disappointed because I am amongst those people.

“Is it emotive? It is for me because I’ve got massive respect for Simon, not just as a rugby player. He is an incredibly likeable young man. It is difficult for me as well.

“But, I have a responsibility to try to think as broadly as I can and try to future-proof as best I can what we think the picture will be over the next two, over the next six years and the risks inherent in selecting people who have signed elsewhere.”

“Form will still be a pretty big dictator come the Six Nations.”

“The doors are more open than people think but we’ve got a responsibility to the provinces that we take really seriously, and to the rugby public, to try to keep the people here as best we can. If there is another solution, I’d be really keen to hear it.”


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