Simon Zebo may be leaving Munster for France at the end of the season, but the man with the X factor is hoping the door to his home province is not shut behind him.
Zebo announced in October that he would be quitting Munster at the conclusion of his current contract to fulfil his ambition to play in the French Top14. It was devastating news for supporters, coming after Donnacha Ryan’s exit from the province last summer for Racing 92, also Zebo’s expected destination.
Yet, while the 27-year-old is determined to sample life in France with partner Elvira and his two young children, and play rugby there while at the peak of his powers, he made it clear yesterday that Munster will be the place to which he will return, if the province will have him.
“I knew the decision was coming up and I just had to make a decision for me and what I consider is best for me and my family,” said Zebo. “It’s something I always wanted to do and the right opportunity at the right time came up. I’m still young enough, I could always hopefully one day... if the door isn’t fully closed on me, I’d still love to be a part of Munster Rugby in the future, but trying out the Top14 is always something I wanted to do.
“I could have waited until I was 31 or 32 and be a sheep like 90% of all the players who decide to go then, but I wanted to try it when I’m in my prime and give it my best shot. I’m true to myself and I know who I am, so I do things my way.
Asked to clarify that he was not closing the door on a Munster return one day, Zebo replied: “Absolutely not. Munster is my home. In my eyes, it’s one of the best places in the world to play rugby. I’ve been blessed and very grateful to be given the opportunity to represent Munster for the past few years. This is a step I’ve wanted to take in my life, but definitely not closing the door and, hopefully, Munster wouldn’t close the door on me either, because it’s my home.”
Zebo is clearly relieved to have made the decision on his future, and was relishing the opportunity to poke fun at teammates CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony, currently in contract negotiations with the IRFU. At the weekend, following Munster’s 33-10 Champions Cup victory over Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park, the Ireland wing posted a picture of the back-row pair smiling in the dressing room with gold crowns superimposed on their heads and bags of gold dotted about.
“We had a good laugh off it,” Zebo said of his tweet. “They’ve just been getting a bit of a slagging over just the way things have been unfolding. It was the exact same in my situation and it’s been the same for donkey’s years now. Any time contract talks come up, there’s always rumours and this and that. It was just a bit of fun and they enjoyed it more than I did.”
Zebo admitted he had had heart-to-heart conversations with team-mates he is particularly close to following his decision to leave: “Conor [Murray], Keith [Earls], Pete [O’Mahony], people I would have grown up playing with and things like that. Just my real, real close friends, [that] I needed to, I suppose, have a little one-on-one with.
“Besides that, I just tried to make it... dull it down as much as possible, because we’ve got trophies to focus on winning and my situation shouldn’t hinder that.”
He admitted there was some regret that he may be missing out on future glories in red and and also green.
“It’s tough to miss out on Munster. I’m going to miss watching them play in the Champions Cup next year and Thomond Park, like the games we’ve just played in. Yeah, it’ll be tough watching the boys but... I’m not looking forward to it.
“Yeah, [Ireland will] be tough too in the future, but Joe [Schmidt] said the door wasn’t closed, so if he’s telling the truth and I’m playing well in the Six Nations, then I might have a chance to get in there.
“You know there’s a risk I suppose. It’s up to the coaches, then, if they want to select a player, then they can select a player. If they don’t and don’t feel the need, then that’s their call. It’s nothing really to do with me. If I’m playing good rugby and playing with Munster, then I see myself in contention.”
Whether or not he is involved at Test level, Zebo is determined to bow out from Irish rugby, for the time being, with a smile on his face.
“It just makes me enjoy it that bit more,” he said of his decision to leave. “I
am really, really
trying to enjoy it as much as I can. I remember chatting to Rog (Ronan O’Gara) a few years ago, slagging him, saying he was really old and he was laughing at me, giving me the old wink and the nod, saying ‘it will be gone before you know it’.
“It was only when I made my decision that I realised how fast the years had gone by. I wanted to make this season one of my most memorable and enjoyable seasons I have ever had. Winning something would be the icing on the cake.”
Last Saturday’s try and the Zebo celebration that followed neatly encapsulated that determination to enjoy, as the wing latched onto a deft Ian Keatley chip to touch down and then shimmy towards the terracing behind the posts.
“I kind of lost myself for a few minutes, but I was just enjoying it. I was dancing with my kids all week and threw one or two videos on social media of my kids going crazy. We had a lot of fun at home, in the playground, in the car, everywhere we were going, we were having a great week, so I told my son if I scored a try then I was going to do a dance. My partner was telling me she had to rewind it a few times, because he was enjoying it so much. That made me happy.”
Zebo, though, will not be losing sleep at losing out on a gig on RTÉ’s Dancing With The Stars to former team-mate Tomás O’Leary.
“I will let Tomás take that. Oh my god, he is some chancer.”
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