Former Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris has hit out at the hardline stance taken by Joe Schmidt and the IRFU which has resulted in both Simon Zebo and Tadhg Beirne being omitted from the coach’s Six Nations squad.
Zebo, despite being in excellent form, was first left out of the panel for the November internationals at the end of 2017 after news broke that he was leaving Munster to take up a contract offer with Racing 92 as of this summer.
Though widely criticised, it is a policy perfectly in line with the union’s attempts to dilute the lure of lucrative offers from France and England and keep the leading Irish players at home under the one umbrella.
Schmidt has yet to discuss publicly his reasons for ignoring Beirne again but his absence from a squad currently in Spain on a training camp was all the more puzzling yesterday when the Scarlets second row was among 15 nominated for European player of the year.
“I don’t agree with it,” said Ferris. “Simon Zebo is a Munster player currently so why shouldn’t he be allowed to play for Ireland? I know Drico (Brian O’Driscoll) was talking about Tadhg Beirne being at Scarlets and (how) he’s going to be at Munster next year.
“So, why is he not in the squad? Because he’s probably been the best second row in Europe these past couple of weeks. Yeah, it’s a tricky one but it was a pretty rough call on (Zebo) for the autumn internationals because he was playing his best rugby.”
Ferris accepts that the union’s policy has some merit. That it may have helped players such as Tadhg Furlong, Peter O’Mahony, and CJ Stander remain on home soil when mulling new deals in recent months. But the Zebo decision still rankles.
A refreshingly outspoken pundit since he hung up his boots, Ferris is nonetheless confident about Ireland’s prospects in the coming months and believes the side will make a winning start to their latest Six Nations campaign away to France on Saturday week.
Much of that, he believes, will be down to the influence of Leinster and their high-flying players. “It would be very, very hard to not pick 15 Leinster guys in the Ireland team,” he said.
His views on Ulster are almost the polar opposite.
The province bowed out of the Champions Cup at the pool stage for the fourth season in a row with a convincing defeat away to Wasps last week and is again scratching around for an out-half now that Stephen Donald won’t be joining.
“With the amount of talent that they do have, they are (like) Arsenal in the Premier League. They are the underachievers. They can beat anybody on their day. They can physically dominate a La Rochelle pack at home, the biggest pack in Europe.
“But then they back it up the next week with a terrible performance against Wasps, getting physically dominated at every collision and every breakdown, and then when they did have the ball they didn’t know what to do with it.”
Ferris painted a picture of a club without direction, one where players are singing off different hymn sheets and of a coaching team headed by Les Kiss under massive pressure given the poor results and dispiriting performances.
Ferris believes the buck stops higher up. It’s seven years since Ulster chief executive Shane Logan expressed the ambition for the club to be the best in the world.
As the ex-Ulster back row points out, they are, on the form shown since Christmas, the worst of the four Irish provinces.
“Shane Logan has to be made accountable for, firstly, making those comments and then when why that hasn’t happened… I’ve heard the ‘best’ speech in the world about 15 times and it is wearing a bit thin.”
Much of this, he feels, is down to culture and, more accurately, it’s erosion. By way of explanation, he pointed to the Ulster side that faced Munster in Belfast at Christmas and the fact that only one player from numbers one through 10 was a local.
Five were born and raised abroad — though four of them are Irish-qualified. Another four were Leinster men.
“Gone are the days when you had David Humphreys and Kieran Campbell at half-back, Roger Wilson, Stephen Ferris, and Neil Best in the back row,” he said. “It all seems to have got away.
“The question I would ask is: are those players better than the young academy player lining out for Dungannon or Ballymena every week?
“You walk into the Kingspan Stadium and people talk about watching South Africa’s ‘B’ team instead of watching an Ulster team.”
Dopers should get a lifetime ban
Lifetime bans are needed if rugby is to purge itself of drugs, according to Ferris.
The furore that has engulfed Munster and Gerbrandt Grobler of late has focused minds on the rights and wrongs of signing players like the South African — and Carlo del Fava, who played for Ulster — after they have served bans for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Ferris believes the signing of Grobler during the summer wasn’t given sufficient thought by those in charge but, like many observers who have dissected this case and the fallout, he preferred to concentrate on the wider sin than the sinner.
“It’s an IRFU and Munster problem, it’s not his problem. But I would be very much (of the opinion) that if you were ever caught using steroids or a banned substance, a performing-enhancing substance, that the book is thrown at you and it’s a lifetime ban. If that happened then nobody would do it, it’s as simple as that.
“It’s got to a stage now where guys are earning a half-a-million a year, going to France and getting six or seven hundred thousand a year. Are they going to jeopardise that money — life-changing money — for performance enhancing? Absolutely not. I’d be all in favour of a lifetime ban if caught.”
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